July 11, 2018 / 1:16 PM / 2 months ago

Pakistan's secular Pashtun party defiant after Taliban bomber kills 20 activists

PESHAWAR/KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Awami National Party vowed on Wednesday not to be swayed from its resolve to face down terrorists, a day after a Taliban suicide bombing killed a score of its activists, including the son of a party leader assassinated in 2012.

Zakir Hanif, an activist of Awami National Party, points to the ceiling of his pharmacy store which was bombed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in Karachi, Pakistan January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The secular party, drawn chiefly from the Pashtun ethnic group that also provides the Taliban with many recruits, has long competed with it and other Islamist groups in Pakistan’s northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.

“We want peace on our soil and will stand with our ‎people,” said senior party leader Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who lost his only son in a militant attack eight years ago.

“One thing is clear: We will stand in the field against the terrorists,” he told Reuters.

Among those killed in Tuesday night’s bombing in Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was senior leader Haroon Bilour, who inherited the anti-Taliban mantle of his father, himself killed in a 2012 suicide bombing there.

The ANP’s insistence that Pakistan should have a secular government instead of rule by Islamic law has made it a target for the Pakistani Taliban, which groups militant and sectarian bands that have waged war on the state for more than a decade.

Once a leading force in socially conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the party and its leaders have spent five years rebuilding after the Taliban killed hundreds of its activists ahead of Pakistan’s last election in 2013.

Zakir Hanif, an activist of Awami National Party, stands at his pharmacy store which was bombed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, in Karachi, Pakistan January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

More than 700 party workers were killed in attacks during and after the election that year, when the ANP won only two national assembly seats.

Last year, it resumed campaigning on its anti-militancy platform, holding workers’ conventions and rallies in the province and the southern city of Karachi, which is home to more than 5 million Pashtuns.

At elections on July 25, the party is setting its sights on winning a few National Assembly seats and possibly more in the provincial assembly. Success would mean a modest comeback after the party won elections in 2008 to lead the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government for five years.

Although violence has ebbed in Pakistan in recent years, following offensives by the army on militant strongholds in the northwest, many militants have escaped to Afghanistan, from where Pakistan says they launch attacks across the border.

“Our people are frightened ... but we have faced it all,” said party official Noorullah Achakzai.

Party campaign adviser Zakir Hanif was forced to leave Karachi after his father Haji Muhammad Hanif, a senior party figure, was killed in 2011, and his family business, a small pharmacy, was bombed.

Believing security in the country has vastly improved, Hanif has now returned, hoping to revive the party’s fortunes.

“Fear has eroded our lives,” Hanif told Reuters. “Fear will get us if we don’t take part in the elections.”

Zakir Hanif, an activist of Awami National Party, stands outside his pharmacy store which was bombed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in Karachi, Pakistan January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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