- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide bomber blasted a political gathering yesterday in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 25 persons, wounding dozens and stoking fears about security surrounding this month’s parliamentary election.

In the south, an estimated 100,000 supporters of Benazir Bhutto turned out for her party’s first major election rally since her Dec. 27 assassination. Mrs. Bhutto’s widowed husband told the crowd he had a responsibility to save the nation from President Pervez Musharraf’s rule.

Also yesterday, riot police in the capital of Islamabad fired water cannons and tear gas against hundreds of lawyers protesting the detention of the deposed chief justice.

The violence underscored the deep tensions in Pakistan as the nation heads toward the Feb. 18 elections, which are meant to restore democracy after eight years of military rule. But campaigning has been overshadowed by Mrs. Bhutto’s killing, which U.S. and Pakistani officials blame on Islamist militants.

Yesterday’s blast occurred inside a hall where about 200 people had assembled for a political rally in the town of Charsadda in turbulent North West Frontier Province, where Islamist extremists have been battling government forces.

The rally was organized by the Awami National Party — a secular organization that competes against Islamist parties for support among the ethnic Pashtun community.

Abdul Waheed, 22, who suffered burns from the blast, said the bomber struck as a member of the party was reciting verses from the Koran.

Television footage from the blast site, located in the sprawling residence of a party activist, showed the meeting hall littered with bloodstained clothes, police caps and overturned chairs. Policeman Mohammed Khan said two policemen were among the dead, and several children had been killed or injured.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on Islamist militants with ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said the militants are threatening all political parties in the northwest.

Tensions have been running high across Pakistan since the charismatic Mrs. Bhutto was killed in a suicide bombing in Rawalpindi. Candidates have shied away from large outdoor rallies in favor of small gatherings of party stalwarts inside homes or high-walled compounds. Yesterday’s bombing showed even those tightly controlled gatherings are unsafe.

Nevertheless, about 100,000 people gathered in a sports stadium in the southern city of Thatta as Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) resumed its election campaigning — suspended for the traditional 40 days of mourning after her death.

In an emotional speech, Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, asked the crowd to “give me strength so that we can serve the country.” He vowed to carry on his slain wife’s mission.

“I have the responsibility to save Pakistan,” Mr. Zardari said. “This is our country and we have to save it.”

The PPP is widely expected to benefit from a sympathy vote. But it is not clear whether Mr. Zardari can unite the party and dispel public suspicions that he pilfered government funds and demanded kickbacks during Mrs. Bhutto’s two administrations in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Support for Mr. Musharraf plummeted when he launched a campaign last March against critics within the judiciary, including Chief Justice Iftikar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired three months ago and placed under house arrest.

About 1,500 lawyers tried to march yesterday to Mr. Chaudhry’s barricaded home to protest his continued detention. When lawyers tried to breach the barbed-wire barricade, hundreds of riot police responded with tear gas, water cannon and a baton charge.

Several lawyers were roughed up, but there were no reports of serious injury.

Earlier, Pakistan’s Bar Council announced the lawyers would boycott courts nationwide until the elections to pressure the government to restore Mr. Chaudhry and other senior judges.


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