ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A respected Pakistani politician in the fight against Islamic militants was among 11 people killed in a suicide attack on Sunday, triggering fears of more attacks in the coming days.
Shuja Khanzada, a former Pakistani army colonel turned politician who became the home minister responsible for police and security in the populous Punjab province in 2013, was holding a meeting with his supporters in his hometown of Shadi Khan, some 40 miles north of Islamabad, when a militant wearing a suicide vest packed with explosive blew himself nearby.
The blast was so intense that rescue crew had to dig through the rubble of Khanzada's collapsed office building where he was holding a meeting before his body was pulled out.
The late Khanzada frequently spoke out publicly against militants and defended controversial measures such as the restoration of the death penalty in Pakistan following a vicious Taliban attack on a school in the northern city of Peshawar in December last year.
Though no one claimed responsibility for the attack, a senior Pakistani intelligence official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said the hardline "Lashkar-e-Jhangvi" or LeJ Islamic militant group with known links to al Qaeda, was being considered the prime suspect. On 29th July, Malik Ishaq, the leader of LeJ along with two of his sons and eleven supporters were killed in a gunfight between the police and Islamic militants in central Pakistan during an attempted jail break.
Following Ishaq's killing, a senior government official from the provincial government of the Punjab state told CBS News on condition of anonymity that Khanzada subsequently congratulated the police "for their brave actions."
Ishaq, a Sunni, was widely known as a particularly die-hard militant and involved in the killings of hundreds of Shiite Muslims. Ishaq's killing was followed by claims from senior Punjab provincial officials that Khanzada was among the most sought-after individuals by LeJ militants.
Khanzada's killing on Sunday prompted speculation that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will likely come under increasing pressure to order a large scale campaign against militants in the Punjab -- the most important political home base for the Pakistani leader.
"Sharif will now have to consider a major anti-terrorism effort in the Punjab, no matter how politically difficult for him" said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Pakistani political and security commentator who spoke to CBS News.
A senior Western diplomat in Islamabad who also spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity added: "Shuja Khanzada's killing has made it very difficult for the prime minister to step back from an all-out action. I know such an action will make him (Sharif) very unpopular on his home turf but, I am sorry, the prime minister has very limited choices"