Suicide bomber kills 128 in Pakistan attack as ousted Sharif returns

Pakistan’s ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif was last night arrested at an airport and ferried immediately to jail after returning home to face prison for corruption, as the country’s election campaign descended into violence.

The figurehead of Pakistan’s ruling party was held and taken to a waiting plane to be flown to Islamabad soon after touching down in his Lahore stronghold with an entourage of aides and reporters.

His arrest came after a sweeping security crackdown devised to prevent supporters from greeting him in a show of strength. 

However, hours before Sharif arrived with his daughter Maryam, who was also arrested, an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) suicide bomber killed at least 128 people at an election rally in Baluchistan province.

The blast, the deadliest attack in Pakistan since 2014, in Mastung was the third election bomb attack this week and followed the killing of four at a Friday rally in Bannu.

The campaign also saw the ex-wife of Imran Khan publish a tell-all memoir less than two weeks before polling.

Reham Khan’s salacious autobiography contains a series of allegations about the cricketer-turned-politician’s personal life leading to accusations from his party she is seeking to cause maximum damage to his poll chances.

Ms Khan, a former BBC weather presenter now living in London has said she only wanted to tell her story.

Pakistan’s July 25 election will mark only the third time in its history the country has had a democratic transition of power.

But it comes amid accusations from Sharif that his long-time enemies in the military establishment are undermining his Pakistan Muslim League’s (PML-N) campaign in favour of Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party.

While Sharif and his daughter are barred from standing in the poll, their return and surrender is seen as an electoral gamble to try to galvanise the party now led by his brother after it lost ground in recent weeks to Mr Khan.

Sharif’s plane landed after being delayed for nearly three hours and following an extensive security operation apparently designed to ensure his followers could not put on a show of support.

After mass arrests of party workers on Thursday night, Friday began with shipping containers blocking major thoroughfares and mobile phone coverage was soon cut across swathes of the city.

“What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?" Sharif asked as he waited to board his flight in Abu Dhabi.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and now himself candidate for the third-placed Pakistan People’s Party, asked why Lahore appeared to be “under siege”.

Despite the security precautions, around 10,000 PML-N supporters still paraded towards the airport as the afternoon wore on, though it was unclear if Sharif would arrive.

There were widespread rumours throughout the day that his plane would be diverted to Islamabad to avoid a confrontation.

Ayub Bhutta, a professional photographer who had symbolically draped himself in chains for the protest said: “I have extreme love for Nawaz and if he is sent to jail I will set up a hunger camp outside the jail and will continue to fast till he is not release.”

Mr Bhutta’s eldest son, who was accompanying his father said: “I work in a factory but today I have taken off to accompany my father here basically to take care of him.”

Sharif was ousted from office last year after the Panama Papers leak linked his family to offshore companies and a portfolio of expensive London properties.

An anti-graft court last week sentenced him and his daughter in absentia while they were in London, saying he had been unable to prove how he bought the Park Lane flats.