LARKANA, Pakistan - Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto accused the government yesterday of failing to crush Islamic militants, days after a suicide bombing killed 56 people during prayers in a mosque.
The sharp criticism from the former prime minister came as the campaign heated up for next month's parliamentary elections, with politicians addressing rallies around the country.
Bhutto, speaking to 25,000 supporters in her hometown of Larkana, said the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf's government bore the blame for the rise of Islamic militancy in the Muslim country during its reign.
"Militants gained power, and the government's legitimacy weakened," Bhutto said.
Though Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have extended their influence over parts of the northwest in the last two years. They have launched numerous suicide attacks in recent months, usually targeting security officials and their families.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber, apparently targeting former Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, blew himself up Friday in a village mosque. Sherpao said the blast killed 56 people.
As interior minister, Sherpao had helped lead the government's fight against militants. He also survived a suicide attack eight months ago.
Sherpao, who is running for parliament in the Jan. 8 elections, said the bombing would not deter him from campaigning.
"I have a cause and it is to serve my country," he told reporters in Peshawar, a city adjacent to the capital, Islamabad.
Bhutto escaped two suicide attacks in October, when she returned to her country after eight years in exile.
Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, held a rally yesterday in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, weeks after returning from Saudi Arabia, where he had been exiled after Musharraf ousted his government in a 1999 coup.
Addressing supporters from his Pakistan Muslim League-N party at the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sharif told supporters that voting for his party would help oust Musharraf, who declared emergency rule on Nov. 3, giving the government stronger powers. Musharraf lifted the state of emergency on Dec. 15.
"We will ensure the rule of law," said Sharif, who is campaigning even though he has been barred from running for Parliament by the Election Commission for his alleged involvement in a corruption case and other charges.
"I promise that I will strive to put Pakistan back on the path of democracy, because we need the rule of law, not a dictator," Sharif said.
The government said yesterday that it would push ahead with its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and would work to ensure a peaceful election campaign despite the mosque attack.