PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A prominent Islamist politician narrowly escaped an assassination attempt Thursday when a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up near his car in Pakistan’s northwest, killing at least 11 people, government officials and aides said.
Several people accompanying cleric Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) party, as well as policemen, were wounded in the attack in the town of Charsadda, but Rehman was reported to be safe.
“The bomb exploded just when Maulana (cleric) Fazl-ur-Rehman’s vehicle passed that area. He was on his way to attend a public meeting. He is safe and sound,” Abdul Jalil Jan, a JUI leader told Reuters by telephone.
Government officials said the suspected bomber detonated the explosives strapped to his body as Rehman’s convoy and police escort were heading towards the meeting venue.
“It seems to be a suicide attack. Three policemen were among the dead,” Ajmal Khan Naimat, a top government official in Charsadda said.
“Yes, Maulana was the target of the attack. We don’t know why is he being targeted,” Rehman’s aide Jan said.
It was second such attack on a JUI meeting in as many days. Wednesday, 12 people were killed in a suicide attack at a JUI meeting in the northwestern town of Swabi shortly before Rehman arrived there.
Thursday’s attack was the latest episode of political violence in Pakistan this year. In January, the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead by a bodyguard for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law. On March 2, Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the government, was assassinated.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban have waged a campaign of suicide attacks across Pakistan, mainly in the northwest bordering Afghanistan, in retaliation for government offensives against insurgent strongholds.
Rehman, a firebrand orator, is opposed to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States in the fight against Islamist militants, but he has also been wary of militant violence.
His party was part of the coalition government until December 2010, when it pulled out after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani sacked two ministers, including one JUI member, for publicly trading accusations of corruption.
Reporting by Izaz Mohmand and Kamran Haider; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Richard Borsuk