LAHORE/ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was wounded on Sunday in an apparent assassination attempt by a gunman linked to a new ultra-religious Muslim party - an incident likely to raise tensions before an election expected in late July.
Violence has been a feature of pre-election periods in Pakistan over the past decade, mainly due to Islamist assassinations of political figures, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Iqbal, 59, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and a staunch ally of ousted premier Nawaz Sharif, was shot as he was leaving a constituency meeting surrounded by supporters in Punjab province.
An initial report on the shooting by a local administrator, the deputy commissioner of Narowal district, seen by Reuters, said the gunman had been arrested and “showed his affiliation” to Tehreek-e-Labaik.
The party calls for the aggressive enforcement of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty.
However, neither the report nor other officials commented on the attacker’s possible motives.
Iqbal was shot soon after addressing voters in Kanjroor village in Narowal, his constituency near the border with India, but the exact circumstances were not immediately clear.
“I can’t tell you the motive at this stage due to security reasons,” Narowal police chief Imran Kishwar told Reuters.
Police said the bullet had hit Iqbal in the right arm and gone into his groin. They named the suspected shooter as Abid Hussain, 21, and said they had found him carrying a pistol.
After being rushed to a nearby hospital, Iqbal was taken by helicopter to Lahore, capital of Punjab.
“The minister luckily survived,” said junior interior minister Talal Chaudhry. “Thank God, he is out of danger.”
Blasphemy is a deeply emotional and politically charged issue in Pakistan, even more so since Labaik has emerged in the past year.
The party was born out of a protest movement supporting Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to relax Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Labaik has been gaining strength with an election platform centered on punishing blasphemy.
Many of its supporters say PML-N, despite repeated denials, wants to ease the blasphemy laws. While dozens are on death row for blasphemy, no one has been executed in recent decades.
In a statement on Sunday night, Labaik leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi condemned the attack on Iqbal and said the party had not authorized any of its supporters to take up arms.
“Tehreek-e-Labaik is an unarmed struggle to bring the Prophet’s religion to the throne,” Rizvi said.
The statement did not specifically mention any suspect in custody or any links to the party.
Tehreek-e-Labaik, whose name means Movement of the Prophet’s Followers, is a political grouping with no known links to the various Islamist militants - including the Pakistani Taliban - that have carried out bombings and other attacks in Pakistan.
Iqbal, who also heads the planning ministry, has in recent years overseen the implementation of Chinese-funded Belt and Road infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of the near $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi condemned the attack on Iqbal and called for an immediate police report.
A senior government official, who declined to be named, said early information suggested Iqbal had been returning from a meeting with a Christian group.
“We are not sure whether it has got anything to do with the motive. We will know only after investigation of the attacker.”
Militant attacks in Pakistan have fallen sharply over the past few years, but Islamist fighters continue to pose a threat and carry out assassinations.
In the run-up to the 2013 elections, which PML-N won handsomely, Pakistani Taliban militants killed more than 70 people in attacks targeting the Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Many of their most prominent candidates were prevented from campaigning openly.
Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey