Pakistan Interior Minister Shot by Man Linked to Hardline Islamist Party

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2017 file photo, Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal talks to journalists outside the accountability court, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistani officials said Sunday, May 6, 2018, that a gunman opened fire on Iqbal after a public meeting, wounding him in shoulder. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File)
AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File

Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot and wounded on Sunday in what appears to be an assassination attempt by a member of a recently formed hardline Islamist party.

Iqbal, 59, who serves as the country’s interior minister and is a senior member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, was attacked following a constituency meeting in the north-eastern city of Narowal by an individual linked to the extremist Islamic organization Tehreek-e-Labaik.

After suffering injuries to his arm and groin, Iqbal was transferred by helicopter to a hospital in Lahore where he is said to be recovering from his injuries.

The gunman, believed to be 21-year-old Abid Hussain, was later arrested by police when he declared his affiliation for Tehreek-e-Labaik.

“Our initial investigation shows that [Hussain] is associated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan,” local police official Aitzaz Bashir told Al Jazeera. “He admitted this himself.”

The attack is believed to be motivated by a growing desire to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, with religious groups calling for stricter enforcement of the death penalty for those seen as disrespecting Islam.

The incident has heightened fears of violence in the run-up to July’s general election in which Iqbal’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) seeks to fend off electoral challenges from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to remain in government.

Violence has long been a feature in Pakistan’s political climate, with former female prime minister Benazir Bhutto assassinated in 2007 by an Islamist hardliner.

In 2013, Zahra Shahid Hussain, the former senior vice-president of Pakistan’s Movement for Justice party led by cricketer Imran Kahn, was also shot and killed before the re-run of a general election.

In a statement on Sunday night, Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi condemned the attack on Iqbal and said the party had not encouraged its supporters to engage in violence.

“We have got nothing to do with him,” Ashrafi said. “We are unarmed. We are in an unarmed struggle. Those conspiring against Tehreek-e-Labaik will not succeed.”

However, other political figures blamed former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a close ally of Iqbal who is running in the upcoming election, for creating a political climate ripe for such incidents.

“We condemn it with full force. But the political climate is being seriously affected by Nawaz’s wild accusations against his opponents and creating tension and anger all over,” said Naeem ul Haq, chief of staff for Imran Khan, leader of the other opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaf.

“So if Nawaz continues to utter poison, such incidents will continue to occur,” he continued.

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