Blast at Pakistan election rally kills 16
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed 16 people and wounded 25 at an election rally in Pakistan on Saturday, raising security fears for the February 18 vote that could help restore stability in the nuclear-armed country.
Violence has intensified in Pakistan in recent months, with the army battling militants in the northwest and a string of suicide bombs in towns and cities.
Imtiaz Gillani, information minister of North West Frontier Province, where the attack took place on a rally by a party opposed to President Pervez Musharraf, said 16 people were killed, including three security men, and 25 people wounded.
"It was a suicide bombing. They've found the head of the suicide bomber," said an Interior Ministry spokesman.
He also said the death toll was 16 although the provincial health minister said earlier it seemed 20 had died.
Awami National Party provincial president Afrasiab Khattak was leading the rally in the town of Charsadda.
"There was an explosion at my meeting. There was a big bang and I saw some people getting hit," he told Dawn Television, adding that he had not been injured.
The ANP is a secular party competing with religious parties in the legislative elections which were postponed from January 8 after opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack on Dec 27.
Some Pakistanis believe Musharraf, whose popularity has slumped over the past year and whose allies look set to do badly in the vote, might use violence as an excuse to postpone the elections again.
The party said the attack was aimed at eliminating political leaders, creating a crisis and delaying the elections.
Later on Saturday, two small bombs went off in the provincial capital, Peshawar, but no one was hurt, police said.
The government has blamed an al Qaeda-linked militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who is based in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, for the attack on Bhutto and many of the other recent attacks across the country.
The military has stepped up operations against Mehsud in recent weeks. Security analysts fear the militants will launch more attacks in the run-up to the vote as part of their campaign to destabilise the country.
Last year, former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao survived two separate suicide bomb attacks in Charsadda that killed scores of people.
Separately, police used water cannon and tear gas to break up a protest by hundreds of lawyers who tried to march to the home of Pakistan's deposed chief justice in the capital, Islamabad.
Former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was dismissed in November when President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule citing rising militancy and a meddling judiciary.
He has been kept under house arrest since then.
Seven people including four policemen were injured in Saturday's protest, a city official said.
Lawyers have been at the forefront of a campaign against former military chief Musharraf since March when he first tried to dismiss Chaudhry.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Richard Meares)
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