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35 die in Pakistan suicide blast near home of former minister

Times Staff Writer

Striking on one of the year’s most important Muslim holidays, a suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and injured dozens more this morning near the home of a former government minister in volatile northwest Pakistan, police said.

The attack, apparently aimed at ex-Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, heightened tensions less than three weeks before parliamentary elections that are almost certain to alter the balance of power in Pakistan, considered a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The blast also came six days after President Pervez Musharraf lifted a monthlong state of emergency, which was akin to martial law. Musharraf said the emergency decree was meant to help fight Islamic militants who have staged dozens of attacks across Pakistan this year. However, he used the emergency to crack down on a broad range of political opponents.

Today’s attack marked the second time this year that Sherpao was the apparent target of a suicide bomber. Nearly 30 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a rally he attended in April, also in northwest Pakistan.

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Up until a caretaker government was put in place last month in advance of the elections, Sherpao was the country’s most senior civilian security official. He is running as a candidate in the Jan. 8 parliamentary vote.

The attack occurred as worshipers gathered at a mosque in the Sherpao family compound in a community from which his clan takes its name. Sherpao was receiving visitors at the start of Eid al-Adha, a three-day festival that is a focal point of the Islamic calendar.

The village of Sherpao is about 25 miles northeast of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. The most seriously wounded were rushed to hospitals in the city, and smaller local clinics were quickly overwhelmed by the number of injured.

Witnesses said the attacker mingled with worshipers, detonating his explosives in the midst of morning prayers.

The force of the explosion left a tableau of scattered limbs and bloodied scraps of clothing.

Sherpao was reported by state television to be uninjured, but a local official said one of his sons was hurt.

Islamic militants are entrenched in the region surrounding Peshawar, which lies close to the Afghan border. U.S. intelligence reports say Al Qaeda and the Taliban have used the remote, rugged area to regroup and rebuild their strength since the U.S invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Hundreds of Pakistanis have died this year in suicide bombings and other attacks by Islamic militants.

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The violence intensified after government forces stormed a radical mosque in the capital in July, killing the chief cleric and dozens of his followers. Militant leaders said they held Musharraf and his senior associates responsible for the deaths, and vowed to avenge them.

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laura.king@latimes.com


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