Bomb at Pakistan Islamist party rally kills 16

People stand near a man injured from an explosion, at a local hospital in Pakistani tribal area of Parachinar, Monday, May 6, 2013.
AP Photo/Ali Murtaza

PARACHINAR, PakistanA bomb blast tore through a political rally held by an Islamist party in northwest Pakistan Monday, in an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban that killed 16 people and underscored an increase in violence ahead of the May 11 vote.

The explosion, at a rally held in the village of Sewak in the northwest Kurram tribal area, was the latest attack on candidates, political offices and election-related events as the vote approaches.

The bomb, which was apparently planted near the main stage of the rally, killed 16 and left 44 wounded, said Umar Khan, a doctor at the nearby Sada hospital where many of the wounded were initially taken.

The historic vote in Pakistan, scheduled for this Saturday, will be the first time a democratically elected civilian government completes its term and hands over power to another. But the ongoing attacks against candidates, their supporters and political offices has cast a shadow over the momentous occasion, and may deter many people from going to the polls.

The Taliban have claimed responsibility in recent weeks for a string of attacks against secular Pakistani parties that have in general supported military intervention against the militants in the tribal regions.

Claiming responsibility for Monday's bombing, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said the attack was aimed at a candidate who had appeared at the rally — Munir Khan Orakzai. Ahsan said Orakzai was targeted because he supported operations against militants in the tribal areas when he was previously an independent parliamentarian.

Saturday's election has also thrown into sharp relief a question that has divided the country's Baluch ethnic minority, largely based in the southwest: Can the community win their rights at the ballot box or is the only solution a violent campaign -- like the Taliban's -- to break away from Pakistan?

The Baluch have long been alienated by what they see as exploitation by the central government. Wedged between the borders with Afghanistan and Iran, Baluchistan is rich in oil, natural gas and valuable minerals. But it is Pakistan's poorest province and remains extremely underdeveloped, with residents complaining that resource riches have mainly gone to fill the federal government's coffers.

The province is Pakistan's largest, making up around 40 percent of its area, but also its least populated, with only 9 million people, about half the population of the city of Karachi. Just over half the province's population is Baluch.

The local government is seen as notoriously corrupt, dysfunctional and not responsive to Baluch grievances. Adding to the misery, paramilitary soldiers and intelligence agents have waged a repressive campaign against separatists in which they are accused of snatching scores of people off the street and either killing them or holding them in secret detention. That has fueled distrust of authorities and support for the separatists, especially among Baluchistan's young middle class.

The area has also been plagued by horrific attacks by Islamic militants on minority Shiites. Afghan Taliban fighters have used the territory's empty, arid landscape as a refuge, and the group's elusive leader Mullah Omar is believed to be hiding here.

The province, located on the Arabian Sea, is also vital to coalition forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan, providing one of two overland routes used to ship NATO supplies to troops there.

Some see the voting for national and provincial assemblies as a possible turning point.

Baluch nationalist parties that boycotted elections five years ago and have been out of power in the province for over a decade have decided to participate in the vote. They are pressing Baluch demands for greater autonomy and a larger share of the province's resources — but they advocate remaining part of the state. The hope is that their victory could lessen support for the violent insurgency.

But the question of whether participation is the solution has even divided families.

Akhtar Mengal, one of the most prominent Baluch leaders, returned from self-imposed exile in Dubai in March to lead his Baluchistan Nationalist Party-M in the election. He acknowledges the difficulties of trying to work through the system, especially given the army's power in the province.

"The state has ruled Baluchistan not as a province, but as a colony," he told The Associated Press. "Unless they change their behavior, I don't think the problems here will be solved in 100 years."

His brother, Javed Mengal, who remains in the United Arab Emirates, is an outspoken supporter of independence, and officials accuse him of leading one of several groups that have been staging gun and bomb attacks against security forces, government officials and even civilians for years.