(Bloomberg) -- An Islamic State suicide bomber killed at least 159 people in Pakistan on Friday in one of the country’s worst attacks in living memory ahead of a tense July 25 national election.
The blast also injured 200 others at an election rally in northwestern Mastung in the restive province of Balochistan, Ali Ahmed, a rescue worker in Mastung told Bloomberg News. Interim Balochistan Home Minister Agha Umer Bangalzai said on Twitter that a “suicide bomber loaded with 8 Kg explosives material caused this much devastation.” SITE Intel group, which tracks militant activities, said Islamic State claimed responsibility.
This is the third major attack targeting politicians in the South Asian nation this week. Balochistan Awami Party leader Siraj Raisani was killed in the Mastung blast, while Haroon Bilour, a key leader of the Awami National Party, was murdered in a suicide bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Akram Khan Durrani of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal escaped a blast in northern Bannu on Friday.
Beset by widespread violence in previous election campaigns, up until this week Pakistan had been spared from major attacks ahead of the ballot. The armed forces have beefed up security since a Pakistani Taliban massacre at an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014.
Islamic State’s presence across Pakistan has remained largely low-key, though in February 2017 it claimed a bombing at a shrine in the southern province of Sindh that killed nearly 100 people.
The attack may keep some investors skittish over Pakistan, despite rising foreign investment, spearheaded by China which is providing about $60 billion in funds and loans for infrastructure projects across the country.
The run-up to the poll has also been marred by allegations of widespread army-led media censorship and intimidation. The military, which has directly governed the country for almost half of its independent existence since 1947, has repeatedly denied claims that it is attempting to engineer a controllable government into power.
The armed forces had warned of security threats ahead of the national ballot and said 370,000 troops will be deployed on July 25.
Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa condemned the “heinous” attack in Mashtung, the military’s spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said in a Twitter post. “Attempts of inimical forces to derail important democratic activity shall not succeed,” he said.
The U.S., which has repeatedly accused the Pakistani state of providing support to certain militant groups, condemned the score of bombings this week. “These attacks are cowardly attempts to deprive the Pakistani people of their democratic rights,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Friday’s explosions coincided with the arrest of former premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam as they returned to Pakistan from London after they were handed multi-year jail sentences by an anti-corruption court last week. Key members of the dynastic and former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, they were detained in Lahore on Friday evening as thousands of supporters greeted their arrival and in some areas clashed with police.
The pair were convicted after a two-year corruption scandal that engulfed Pakistani politics after the leak of the so-called Panama Papers showed his family used offshore accounts to buy luxury London apartments. The Sharif family has consistently denied any wrong doing and has criticized the judiciary’s handling of his case. Sharif said the nation’s powerful military -- which removed him in a 1999 coup -- has conspired to manipulate the vote against him.
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