Police in Pakistan's restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said on Monday that an initial probe has suggested that the banned terrorist group Islamic State is behind the suicide attack on a political convention of a hardline Islamist party that killed at least 46 people and injured over 100.
The attack took place on Sunday when more than 400 members of the conservative Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) party, known for its links to hardline political Islam, had gathered for a meeting under a canopy in the town of Khar, which borders Afghanistan.
"We are still investigating and gathering information on the Bajaur blast. The Initial probe shows that banned outfit Daesh (ISIS) was involved," Geo News quoted police officials as saying.
At least 46 people were killed and over 100 injured when a suicide bomber set off explosives at the rally in the former tribal area, the report said.
A total of 38 dead bodies have been handed over to relatives while eight unidentified bodies are still lying in the hospital, police said.
The police said they were gathering details of the suicide bomber, while the bomb disposal squad team was collecting evidence from the site.
District Police Officer Nazir Khan said three suspects have been taken into custody.
Provincial police chief Akhtar Hayat Khan said 10 kilogrammes of explosives set off by a suicide bomber were used in the blast. He said the bomber was among the attendees seated in the front rows of the convention.
Local police said the attacker detonated explosives near the convention's stage.
According to police and witnesses, the blast occurred as soon as JUI-F District Amir Maulana Abdul Rasheed reached the stage.
The deceased included JUI-F Tehsil Khar Maulana Ziaullah Jan, Navagai Tehsil General Secretary Maulana Hameedullah, District Information Secretary Mujahid Khan and dozens of party workers.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) caretaker health minister Riaz Anwar said on Sunday night that 44 people lost their lives while more than 100 were injured in the attack.
An emergency has been declared in the hospitals of Bajaur and adjoining areas where most of the injured were taken.
The critically injured have been transported from Bajaur to hospitals in the provincial capital Peshawar by military helicopters.
Bajaur District Health Officer Dr Faisal Kamal said more than 150 injured people had been brought to the Bajaur District Headquarters Hospital.
"Over 35 people have been referred to the Timargarh hospital while 15 critically injured persons have been sent to Peshawar via a Pakistan Army helicopter," he was quoted as saying by the Dawn newspaper.
Rescuers have warned the death toll may rise further, as 15 people are in critical condition.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has strongly condemned the blast and vowed that those responsible will be identified and punished.
'The Pakistani nation, law enforcement agencies and our protectors will never allow such cowardly tactics of the enemy to succeed,' he tweeted.
Sharif spoke to JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman to express his condolences.
'We are equal participants in your grief. The criminals will be truly punished and bringing an end to terrorism is the commitment of the entire nation,' he said.
He ordered an investigation into the incident and instructed that the critically injured persons be transferred to other hospitals on a helicopter.
Pakistan President Arif Alvi prayed for eternal peace for the departed souls and commiserated with the bereaved families.
He also wished speedy recovery for the injured and emphasised timely medical assistance to them.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa caretaker Chief Minister Azam Khan sought a detailed report on the blast from police.
He also visited the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar, where he met and inquired about the health of injured persons.
Rahim Shah, a witness, told Dawn.com that more than 500 people were attending the convention when the blast occurred.
"We were listening to a bayan [sermon] when a powerful explosion knocked me unconscious," he said.
Shah narrated that when he regained consciousness, there was blood everywhere.
"People were screaming and even shots were fired," he added.
Sabeehullah, a 24-year-old JUI-F supporter who had his arm fractured by the blast, said the scale of injuries was horrifying.
'There was utter confusion, with human flesh, limbs, and body parts scattered throughout the area, alongside lifeless bodies. I found myself lying next to someone who had lost their limbs. The air was filled with the smell of human flesh,' he was quoted as saying in the report.
The JUI-F chief, in a statement issued by the party's media cell, expressed grief over the incident.
He sought an inquiry into the attack from Prime Minister Sharif and the KP government.
'May Allah raise the ranks of martyrs,' Fazl said and prayed for the speedy recovery of the injured.
He also appealed to JUI-F workers to immediately reach hospitals and provide blood donations.
In a tweet, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah vowed to bring the perpetrators of today's attack to justice.
'The cowardly acts of terrorists cannot dampen our spirits,' he said.
Former prime minister Imran Khan said he was saddened to learn about the blast and extended condolences to the victims' families.
'The rise in terror incidents across Pakistan particularly in KP, calls for an urgent need to reconsider our priorities,' he said, adding that the authorities should focus on eliminating terrorism.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government in Afghanistan, has condemned the attack.
TTP spokesman Khalid Khurrasani also condemned the blast.
Pakistan has witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.
On January 30, a Pakistan Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up during the afternoon prayers in a mosque in Peshawar, killing 101 people and injuring more than 200 others.
In February, heavily-armed TTP militants stormed the Karachi Police chief's office in Pakistan's most populous city, sparking gunfire that killed three rebels and four others, including two police constables.