Blast targeting official kills 26

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A suicide bomber believed to have been targeting Pakistan’s interior minister set off a powerful explosion Saturday that killed at least 26 people and injured dozens of others including the minister, Pakistani authorities said.

The blast, at a political gathering in Pakistan’s restive North-West Frontier Province, represented what authorities said appeared to be a renewed challenge by Islamic insurgents to the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, who suffered relatively minor injuries in the attack, is the senior civilian official in charge of the country’s security affairs and a highly symbolic target.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on Islamic militants who have established a strong presence in the Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The explosion took place in the town of Charsadda, about 18 miles northeast of the provincial capital of Peshawar, where Sherpao had addressed an open-air rally of supporters.

State-run television showed Sherpao in the wake of the blast, clad in a crimson-splattered traditional white tunic with blood running down his face. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, described the minister’s injuries as minor, and she said Sherpao was alert and had conferred by telephone with other government officials.

Security officials said guards foiled the attacker’s efforts to move close to Sherpao. Once the bomber realized he had aroused suspicions, they said, he set off his payload of explosives.

Various insurgent organizations have found shelter in Pakistan’s wild borderlands, and all of them oppose Musharraf’s alliance with the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those groups include homegrown Pakistani militants, Taliban-allied forces who slip back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistani border, and al-Qaida elements who have regrouped and rearmed in the tribal areas, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

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