By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - A bomb killed a Pakistani provincial minister and at least eight others when it destroyed the minister's home on Sunday in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's political heartland of Punjab.
Police said the blast appeared to be a suicide attack, launched as Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada held a meeting in his hometown of Attock in the country's north.
"There were between 20 and 30 people present when the blast took place," district information officer Shahzad Niaz told Reuters. "The roof collapsed."
Salman Rafiq, Punjab's provincial health adviser, confirmed that Khanzada was killed. Rescue workers at the scene said nine bodies had been recovered so far.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 190 million people, is plagued by a Taliban insurgency, criminal gangs and sectarian violence. Punjab is its biggest and wealthiest province.
A Taliban-affiliated militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was retaliation for military operations against it.
"Such types of attacks will continue in the future," its spokesman Saluddin Ayubi told Reuters.
It was unclear if Lashkar-e-Islam, based mainly in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, had actually carried out the attack or was just seeking credit for it.
If the claim was true, the bombing would represent a significant development in the group's ability to strike at high-level targets. Such big attacks are more usually the hallmark of the Taliban or banned sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Another militant movement, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban calling itself Jamaatul Ahrar, also claimed responsibility.
Later on Sunday, Pakistani fighter jets pounded militant hideouts in the Shawal Valley near the northeastern border with Afghanistan, with the army's media wing saying that 40 militants were killed.
Pakistan last summer launched an offensive against Taliban and affiliated jihadist fighters in North Waziristan, seeking to deprive them of safe havens from which to launch attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Punjab has traditionally been more peaceful than other parts of Pakistan. Sharif's opponents have accused him of tolerating militancy in return for peace in his province, a charge he hotly denies.
Two weeks ago, Punjab police killed the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, along with his two sons, deputy, and 10 other supporters.
Police described the incident as a shootout as he sought to escape from custody, but many insiders say the shooting had the hallmarks of an extrajudicial killing.
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)