The death toll from a massive suicide bombing incident targeting an election rally for a pro-Taliban cleric rose to 54 Monday, as Pakistan held funerals and the government vowed to hunt down those behind the attack.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing, which also wounded nearly 200 people. Police said their initial investigation suggested that the Islamic State group’s regional affiliate could be responsible.
The victims were participating in a rally organized by the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, headed by hard-line cleric and politician Fazlur Rehman. He did not attend the rally, held under a large tent close to a market in Bajur, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan.
Rehman, who has long supported Afghanistan’s Taliban government, escaped at least two known bomb attacks in 2011 and 2014, when the explosions damaged his car at rallies. Victims of the bombing were buried in Bajur on Monday.
As condolences continued to pour in from across the country, dozens of people who received minor injuries were discharged from hospital while the critically wounded were taken to the provincial capital of Peshawar by army helicopters. The death toll continued to rise as critically wounded people died in hospital, physician Gul Naseeb said.
On Monday, police recorded statements from some of the injured at a hospital in Khar, Bajur’s largest town. Feroz Jamal, the provincial information minister, said police were “investigating this attack in all aspects.”
At least 1,000 people had assdembled under a large tent Sunday as their party prepared for parliamentary elections, expected in October or November. “People were chanting God is Great on the arrival of senior leaders, when I heard the deafening sound of the explosion,” said Khan Mohammad, a local resident while he was standing outside the tent.
Mohammad said he heard people crying for help, and minutes later ambulances started arriving and taking the wounded away.
Abdul Rasheed, a senior leader in Rehman’s party said the bombing was aimed at weakening the party but that “such attacks cannot deter our resolve.” Islamist groups have long had a presence in Bajur. The district was formerly a base for Al Qaida and a stronghold of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.