PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Hundreds of mourners wept Sunday as villagers buried the victims of a suicide bombing at a Pakistani political gathering, an attack that killed 27 people and stoked fears about security ahead of this month’s crucial parliamentary elections.
Saturday’s blast devastated a hall where about 200 people had gathered for a rally in the town of Charsadda, located in the turbulent North West Frontier province, where Islamic extremists have been battling government forces.
The rally was organized by the Awami National Party — a secular group that competes against Islamist parties for support among the ethnic Pashtun community.
“The entire village is grieving,” said Tariq Khan, who attended the funeral for three men from Nahqi village. “Their relatives were crying and others were deeply grieved.”
He said the Awami party had promoted peace in the turbulent North West Frontier area and “we do not understand why such a big attack happened.”
No group claimed responsibility but suspicion fell on Islamic extremists linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida. Police recovered what they believe was the head of the bomber and planned DNA tests to try to establish his identity.
Mohammed Adeel, secretary general of the party, said 27 people died and 50 were wounded. Eighteen of the wounded were in serious condition, he said.
He said the attack pointed to a conspiracy against ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border and that “religious as well ethnic and government elements” were involved. He did not elaborate.
The Awami party is considered a rival to the province’s hardline Islamist groups, which are also made up primarily of Pashtuns.
The suicide attack underscored the deep tensions in Pakistan as the nation heads toward the Feb. 18 elections, which are meant to restore democracy after eight years of military rule. But campaigning has been overshadowed by the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, which U.S. and Pakistani officials blame on Islamic militants.
Concern is mounting in both Pakistan and the United States about the rise in violence in the volatile border area, where American officials believe that al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban are regrouping after being driven out of Afghanistan.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was due in Peshawar on Sunday to confer with Pakistani military commanders running the battle against the extremists. Mullen met Saturday with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and top military commanders to discuss the situation along the frontier.
Mullen told reporters in Islamabad that the recent increase in suicide attacks shows that “certainly the threat is going up.”
He said the Taliban and al-Qaida “have found safe havens here and it’s in those safe havens that we are now very focused ... It’s a very deadly lethal enemy that will not cease and that is why we have to work it very hard together.”
U.S. officials hope the elections will help calm political passions, which have been sharpening since last March when Musharraf sought to rein in the country’s independent judiciary. That move led to a sharp drop in support for Musharraf among urban professionals and other moderate groups in Pakistan.
But the ongoing violence has put a damper on political activity, especially in the northwest. Candidates have shied away from large outdoor rallies in favor of small gatherings inside homes or high-walled compounds. Saturday’s bombing showed that even those tightly controlled gatherings are unsafe.
‘I have the responsibility to save Pakistan’
Nevertheless, about 100,000 people gathered Saturday in a sports stadium in the southern city of Thatta as Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party resumed its campaigning — suspended for the traditional 40 days of mourning after her death.
In an emotional speech, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, asked the crowd to “give me strength so that we can serve the country.” He vowed to carry on his slain wife’s mission.
“I have the responsibility to save Pakistan,” Zardari said. “This is our country and we have to save it.”
Zardari claimed his wife had been murdered by an establishment that she wanted to change. “That is why they were against us,” Zardari said. “If they try to stop me, I will destroy them and I hope you people will support me.”
The government has rejected allegations that intelligence agents or members of the ruling party allied to Musharraf plotted to kill Bhutto.
Meanwhile, a leading Pakistani rights group said a British police inquiry that concluded Bhutto died because of a bomb blast, not gunfire, was inadequate.
The British report released Friday, after a 2½-week probe into the cause of Bhutto’s death, said she died when her head struck the escape hatch of her armored sports utility vehicle after a suicide attacker struck during a campaign rally.
It supported a similar account from the Pakistani government, but the findings have been disputed by Bhutto’s party, which insists she died of bullet wounds.
“The Scotland Yard findings do not satisfy the basic requirements of any investigation,” Asma Jehangir, head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said in a statement released late Saturday.
Jehangir noted Scotland Yard’s report contradicted statements by people who were in Bhutto’s vehicle, who said the explosion took place after Bhutto had slumped back into her seat.
In the absence of an autopsy and a thorough forensic examination of the crime scene, the police findings “can only be viewed as a hunch,” she said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.