LAHORE, Pakistan – The deadliest attack in Pakistan’s troubled election campaign killed 65 people at a rally in southwestern Baluchistan on Friday ahead of the return to Pakistan of disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It’s expected Sharif will be whisked away by helicopter to the federal capital of Islamabad when he returns later Friday to Pakistan from London to face a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges, anti-corruption officials said.
A provincial caretaker home minister said the death toll from a deadly bombing near the election rally of a politician running for a seat in the Baluchistan provincial legislature also critically wounded the candidate Siraj Raisani, said Minister Agha Umar Bungalzai. He told The Associated Press another 45 people were wounded in Friday’s bombing in Mastung, a town in the southwestern Baluchistan province.
It was the second election-related violence in a day.
Meanwhile, Sharif’s arrival in the eastern city of Lahore was delayed until 8 p.m. He will be accompanied by his daughter Mariam, who was sentenced to seven years in prison. The two were in London visiting Sharif’s ailing wife when a Pakistani court convicted them of corruption.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Sharif’s son-in-law is currently serving his one-year prison sentence on the same charge, which stems from the purchase of luxury apartments in Britain that the court said were bought with illegally acquired money.
Sharif is expected to appeal his conviction and seek bail.
Ahead of his return, police swept through Lahore, arresting scores of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party workers to prevent them from greeting him at the airport.
Barbed wire was strung across some roads leading to the Lahore airport on Friday and barricades were positioned at the roadside ready to close off main boulevards should crowds start to gather.
In a video message Friday reportedly from aboard his aircraft en route to Pakistan, Sharif said he was returning knowing he would be taken directly to prison.
Sharif has been banned from participating in politics, and his brother Shahbaz Sharif now heads his Pakistan Muslim League and is campaigning for re-election on July 25.
In a televised appeal to supporters from London earlier this week, Sharif said he was not afraid of prison and asked people to vote for his party. He also used the opportunity to again criticize Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled the country directly or indirectly for most of its 71-year history, saying Pakistan now has a “state above the state.”
During his term in office, Sharif criticized the military’s involvement in civilian affairs and its efforts in fighting extremists.
Pakistani and international rights groups have accused the military of seeking to maintain its influence in Pakistani politics by keeping Sharif out of power. The military denied the accusations saying their assistance in carrying out the elections was requested by Pakistan’s Election Commission. The army will deploy 350,000 security personnel to polling stations throughout the country on election day.
Underscoring the security threat, were Friday’s bombings that killed 69 people in the latest election related violence. The first bomb that killed four people exploded in the northwest near the election rally of a senior politician from an Islamist party who is running for parliament from the northwestern town of Bannu.
The explosion targeted candidate Akram Khan Durrani, who escaped unhurt, and wounded 20 people, said local police chief Rashid Khan.
Durrani is running in the July 25 vote against popular former lawmaker Imran Khan. He is a candidate of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an election alliance of radical religious groups.
The second explosion was in southwestern Baluchistan province, that killed 65 people and critically wounded the candidate.
Another 45 people were hurt in the attack in Mastung, a town in southwest Baluchistan province.
No one claimed responsibility for either bombing, but the attacks came days after a suicide bomber dispatched by the Pakistani Taliban killed secular politician Haroon Ahmed Bilour and 20 others at his rally in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Former lawmaker Imran Khan, who hopes to become the next prime minister, condemned Friday’s attack against his opponent, Durrani. In a tweet, he said there seems to be a conspiracy to sabotage the July 25 vote. But he said the people of Pakistan will not allow anything to prevent “historic” elections from taking place.
Sattar reported from Quetta, Pakistan and Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Munir Ahmed and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.