Pakistan government says elections will proceed despite bombing

( dpa ) - Pakistan's Interior Minister said Sunday that crucial forthcoming elections remains on track despite another suicide bombing that killed at least 20 people at a campaign rally the previous evening.

With just more than a week before parliamentary polls on February 18, which are meant to usher in the return of civilian government after eight years of military rule, the country is bracing for more violence as political parties push ahead with final rallies.

"We are going to beef up the security for the prominent political leaders and also give a larger role for law enforcement agencies," Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said. "We have to have a good (situation) as we're eight days away. These elections are very important and they will be held on time."

He said Saturday's attack, in Charsadda district of the volatile North-West Frontier Province during a rally by the nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), was likely the work of the same Islamic extremists who killed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27 and hundreds of security forces around the country in the past year.

Nawaz said the Interior Ministry's official death toll from Saturday's attack remained at 20, but there were conflicting media reports about the number of victims, including one by DawnNews TV on Sunday that said 28 people were killed.

"I think this is the same group and the basic reason for this (attack) appears to be the disruption of the overall environment of the elections, which are just a week away," Nawaz said. "Previously, this political party had not been touched."

The suicide bomber blew himself up when around 200 ANP party workers gathered at a compound in a small village in Charsadda. More than 40 people, including 10 children and an ANP candidate for provincial assembly, were injured in the explosion.

Pakistan has seen a surge in suicide attacks that killed around 750 people in 2007 and more than 270 since New Year's Day.

In December, more than 50 people were killed in Charsadda when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque where former interior minister Aftab Sherpao was among a crowd offering prayers during the Eid ul-Adha festival. Sherpao survived the bombing.

Authorities blame pro-Taliban militants from the country's tribal belt near Afghanistan. The region is believed to be a safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters who fled to the area after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Nonetheless, the country's main parties were defiantly continuing their campaigns, albeit at a slower pace, with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid drawing a crowd of at least 5,000 people Sunday to a sports complex in Mithi, in the southern province of Sindh.

On Saturday, thousands of supporters of the Pakistan People's Party attended a public meeting in Punjab province led Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband and party co-chairman, who resumed campaigning after concluding a 40-day mourning period for the pro-democracy icon last Thursday.

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