Blast Kills at Least 25 At NW Pakistan Rally

By Candace Rondeaux and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 10, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 9 -- A powerful bomb killed at least 25 people at an opposition party rally in Pakistan's turbulent northwest Saturday, according to government officials.

The explosion in the city of Charsadda ripped through a crowd of supporters of the secular Awami National Party moments before the party's provincial president arrived, witnesses said. The source of the blast was unclear, but government officials blamed a suicide bomber.

With national elections only nine days away, the bombing raised concerns the government would postpone the vote in troubled North-West Frontier Province, near the Afghan border. The region has been the site of repeated clashes between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani military, as well as suicide bombings.

But Pakistani government officials moved swiftly to allay fears they might delay the vote, which had already been postponed after the Dec. 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

"It will not affect the election schedule. The elections will go ahead as planned," said retired Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Lateef Afridi, a top official with the Awami National Party, said that the party's provincial president, Afrasiab Khattak, had been on his way to the meeting in Charsadda when he received reports of the bombing. By the time Khattak arrived, the rally site was covered in blood from the dozens of dead and wounded.

Afridi said he believed the rally was targeted by extremists operating in the region because the Awami National Party is expected to win a majority at the polls in North-West Frontier Province and form an alliance with the Pakistan People's Party, the opposition group that Bhutto had led.

"The ANP is a liberal party. It's a secular party," Afridi said. "We have condemned extremism and terrorism, so now we are under threat."

Government officials and witnesses gave conflicting estimates late Saturday of the number of casualties. Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said that 17 people had been killed and 25 wounded and that several police officials were among the casualties. Afridi said he believed at least 20 people had been killed and 35 seriously injured. Officials later reported that at least 25 people had been killed.

The Pakistan People's Party, meanwhile, held its own rally Saturday in the southern city of Thatta. It was the party's first major event since Bhutto's assassination and drew an estimated 100,000 people, according to the Associated Press.

In Islamabad, top Pakistani military officials met with their American counterparts to discuss ways to enhance U.S. military assistance to this nuclear-armed nation. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and several Pakistani army generals to discuss continued cooperative efforts to tamp down the violence that has rocked Pakistan's northwest and tribal areas.

It was the first time Mullen had met with Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, who was appointed head of the Pakistani army after Musharraf stepped down in November. At a news conference, Mullen hailed Pakistan as a "steadfast ally" in the Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts, lauding the Pakistani military's recent operations against extremists and offering to increase training programs for its forces.

"We're in a new era, and there are new threats," Mullen said. "Both our nations have been the victims of terrorism, and I think cooperation and partnerships and relationships remain key."

Mullen is scheduled to travel Sunday to the northwestern city of Peshawar, about 30 miles southwest of Charsadda.

Ali reported from Peshawar. Correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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