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Blast kills 31 as Pakistanis cast ballots

Ex-cricket star may be on verge of win

Pakistani security personnel gather at the site of a suicide attack near a polling station in Quetta on July 25. At least 30 people were killed and dozens more wounded in a suicide attack on a polling station in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, officials said, as millions voted in a nationwide election on July 25. (AFP)

ISLAMABAD, July 25, (AP): A suicide bomber struck outside a crowded polling station in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta, killing 31 people as Pakistanis cast ballots Wednesday in a general election meant to lead to the nation’s third consecutive civilian government. The attack in Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, also wounded 35 people and several were reported to be in critical condition, raising concerns the death toll could rise further, according to hospital official Jaffar Kakar, a doctor.

A witness who was waiting to cast his ballot, Abdul Haleem, said he saw a motorcycle drive into the crowd of voters just seconds before the explosion. Haleem’s uncle was killed in the blast. “There was a deafening bang followed by thick cloud of smoke and dust and so much crying from the wounded people,” he told The Associated Press.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bombing. Baluchistan also saw the worst violence during election campaigning earlier this month, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a political rally, killing 149 people, including the candidate Siraj Raisani. Another 400 were wounded. Voting in that constituency has been suspended. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for that attack, though Baluchistan has seen relentless attacks, both by the province’s secessionists and Sunni militants who have killed hundreds of Shiites living there. In recent years, the IS affiliate in the region has emerged as a major force behind violence, often using local Sunni radicals from the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to carry out its attacks.

Pakistani politician Imran Khan (center), chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, casts his vote at a polling station for the parliamentary elections in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 25. After an acrimonious campaign, polls opened in Pakistan to elect the country’s third straight civilian government, a first for this majority Muslim nation that has been directly or indirectly ruled by its military for most of its 71-year history. (AP)

Citing security concerns, Pakistan’s election commission announced that internet and cellphone services in several Baluchistan districts have been suspended. Election commission secretary Babar Yaqub told reporters that threats against polling stations, staff and even candidates have been received. Militants on Tuesday lobbed grenades and opened fire at a military convoy escorting election staffers and voting material in Baluchistan’s district of Turbat, killing four troops.

At the request of the election commission, Pakistan’s military deployed 350,000 troops countrywide at polling stations. Also on Wednesday, police said a shooting between supporters of two opposing political parties killed one person and wounded two in a village near the northwestern city of Swabi.

Later, more clashes between rival political parties killed another person and wounded 15 across the country. Early voting was heavy at some polling stations in Islamabad, the capital, and also in the Punjab provincial capital, with several political party leaders standing in line to cast their ballots. Local television reported scattered incidences of police arresting people with pre-marked ballots.

Meanwhile, he’s a thrice-married playboy who hangs out with Mick Jagger. But he’s also an Islamist who has kept company with a cleric and spiritual adviser to many in Afghanistan’s Taleban movement. He has denounced Washington’s intervention in Afghanistan, but also has criticized Pakistan’s turn toward China, which has invested billions of dollars in the country. Former international cricket star Imran Khan turned to politics more than two decades ago and may be on the verge of becoming Pakistan’s next prime minister in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.

The 65-year-old opposition leader has disparaged liberals, attacked feminism, embraced radical religious parties and vowed to uphold Pakistan’s blasphemy law. He enjoys the support of the country’s powerful military establishment, although he has been known to go his own way.

Khan has led his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, in widespread protests alleging ballot-rigging in the 2013 election, in which he received about 19 percent of the vote. He also has seized on an anti-corruption message and led demonstrations against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, demanding a criminal investigation after leaked documents from a Panama law firm revealed that Sharif and his family had undisclosed assets abroad.

Sharif was convicted in one case of corruption involving the purchase of luxury apartments in Britain and is serving a 10-year sentence while awaiting an appeal. He also has been banned from running for office. But Khan also has drawn criticism by having his party field candidates chosen not on merit but on their likelihood to get elected — the so-called “electables.” Novelist Mohammed Hanif described in a recent column as “land-grabbers, feudal lords and rent-seekers” who know how to win at the ballot box.

Khan’s priorities will be the economy, security and foreign policy, specifically Afghanistan and how to move forward with the US, said Mohammad Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. In an earlier interview with The Associated Press, Khan said US President Donald Trump’s policy on Afghanistan was “deeply flawed.” He said US attacks against militants in Pakistan won’t end the protracted war in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year and the longest US military engagement.

Trump “neither understands the history of Pakistan nor the character of the Afghan people,” Khan said, He criticized the US drone strikes in Pakistan, saying they kill innocent people and have failed to bring success. “Drone attacks lead to collateral damage. If (they) were such a successful strategy, they would be winning the war,” Khan said in the interview.

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