Suicide bombers stormed the offices of a top Pakistani official in the northwest on Monday, killing five people in the latest high-profile attack as the country prepares to hold elections.
Mutahir Zeb, the government’s representative in the semi-autonomous tribal district of Khyber, was unhurt but his deputy was seriously wounded in the attack as officials in the city of Peshawar discussed preparations for the elections.
There was no claim of responsibility. The military has long been fighting Taliban and other Islamist insurgents in Khyber, which straddles a key NATO supply route into Afghanistan, where US-led combat troops are due to leave next year.
The upcoming general election will mark the first time adults are eligible to vote and political parties allowed to operate in the tribal belt, parts of which are strongholds of Islamist militants.
The government introduced the changes in 2011 in a bid to contain systemic violence. Critics have argued that lack of reforms had alienated tribesmen and made it easier for militant networks to recruit young men to take up arms to fight the Pakistani government.
Police said 12 people were wounded when two attackers opened fire and then blew themselves up at the complex, which contains Zeb’s office, police cells to detain suspected militants, and residential quarters.
Zeb and a meeting of party officials and prospective electoral candidates discussing arrangements for the elections at his office were the target, senior police official Imran Shahid told AFP.
“First they opened fire and lobbed a hand grenade and killed two local police officials. Then they entered in the compound and a gunfight erupted,” Shahid said.
Officials said one of the bombers blew himself up at the gate, outside Zeb’s office, and the second managed to enter the control room, home to the switchboard.
“The control room, which was in a separate portion, collapsed. Assistant political agent Khalid Mumtaz Kundi, who was present in the control room, was seriously wounded,” said Shahid.
Peshawar bomb disposal chief Shafqat Malik said the bombers were carrying up to eight kilos of explosives.
Jamil Shah, spokesman for the main government-run Lady Reading Hospital, said five people were killed and seven others admitted with serious injuries. Four security officials and a civilian man, aged around 60, were among the dead, he said.
Muhammad Iqbal Afridi, local leader in the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party headed by retired cricket star Imran Khan, said he heard heavy gunfire.
“We were inside the office when we heard gun shots. Suddenly firing started and then they hurled some grenades,” Afridi told AFP.
“Then there was intense exchange of firing between the militants and the security forces. Later, security forces evacuated us from the building. While leaving, I saw two dead bodies and blood everywhere.”
Violence has increased in the northwest in recent months as Pakistan prepares to hold historic general elections by mid-May, which will mark the first time an elected civilian government completes a full-term in office.
On Friday, Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern province of which Peshawar is the capital, escaped a Taliban assassination attempt en route to a political rally in the town of Mardan.
On December 22, the Pakistani Taliban claimed the assassination of Hoti’s deputy, Bashir Bilour, in a suicide bombing at a political meeting in Peshawar.
In the southwest, a massive bomb attack killed 81 members of the minority Shiite Muslim Hazara community in the city of Quetta on Saturday.
On January 10, suicide bombers killed 92 people at a snooker hall in another Hazara part of Quetta, the deadliest single attack on Shiites in Pakistan, where rights activists say sectarian violence has reached record levels.