Pre-election violence flared Saturday when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a campaign rally in northwest Pakistan, killing at least 25 people and injuring about 50 others, authorities said.
Pakistan has been braced for turmoil in advance of Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. Although violence mainly has been scattered and small scale, officials feared that the bombing in Charsadda, in North West Frontier province, could be a harbinger of deadlier attacks as the campaign draws to a close.
Television footage of Saturday's blast, in a small assembly hall, showed the floor littered with blood-stained caps, shoes and clothing. Local news reports and hospital officials said several children were among the casualties.
The bombing in Charsadda came hours after police battled hundreds of lawyers and other civil activists in one of the largest clashes of its kind in the capital, Islamabad. Lawyers have been at the forefront of a drive to unseat President Pervez Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted the past year.
The two sides launched volleys of tear gas and stones as the protesters tried to march toward the nearby home of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest for more than three months. Several lawyers, wearing their courtroom garb of black suits, were bundled into police vans, and several reported being roughed up by police.
At the same time, the visiting chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, acknowledged that Islamic militant groups are growing in strength despite a massive infusion of U.S. funding over the past five years to help the Pakistani military fight them.
"The threat is going up - we're both concerned about that," Mullen said after a series of meetings with senior Pakistani military officials, including new army chief Gen. Pervez Kiani.
In Saturday's bombing, there was no immediate claim of responsibility, but militant groups based in Pakistan's tribal lands have threatened all political parties in North West Frontier province.
The suicide attack targeted a gathering of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing ethnic Pashtuns. On Wednesday, unidentified assailants in the southern port city of Karachi shot and killed a senior leader of the party, triggering riots by the party's supporters.
Charsadda, which is near the tribal areas, has been the scene of several bloody attacks in recent months. In December, more than 50 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque at the start of a major Muslim festival.
Fear of violence has put a damper on most campaign activity, but Benazir Bhutto's party Saturday held its first large-scale rally since she was assassinated Dec. 27.
Her widowed husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who has assumed leadership of the Pakistan People's Party, told a crowd that he wanted to carry on his wife's legacy. "This is our country, and we have to save it," he said.