Lahore (Pakistan) – A Taliban suicide bomber who attacked a Pakistani park crowded with families on Easter Sunday was targeting Christians, the group said, as the death toll rose to 72 including many children.

Security officials collect evidence at the cordoned-off site of the March 27 suicide bombing in Lahore a day after the attack © AFP Arif Ali
Security officials collect evidence at the cordoned-off site of the March 27 suicide bombing in Lahore a day after the attack © AFP Arif Ali

Hundreds were hurt when explosives packed with ball bearings ripped through crowds near a children’s play area in the park in Lahore, where many had gathered to celebrate Easter.

“We carried out the Lahore attack as Christians are our target,” Ehansullah Ehsan, spokesman for the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, told AFP by telephone on Monday from an undisclosed location.

He said the group would carry out more such attacks, vowing to target schools and colleges alongside government and military interests.

The attack was the worst so far this year in a country grimly accustomed to atrocities, and will further undermine fractious inter-religious ties in the Muslim-majority nation.

Witnesses described children screaming as people carried the injured in their arms, while frantic relatives searched for loved ones.

“We had gone to the park to enjoy the Easter holiday. There was a blast suddenly, I saw a huge ball of fire and four to six people of my family are injured. Two of them critical,” 53-year-old Arif Gill told AFP.

Rescue spokeswoman Deeba Shahbaz said the death toll had risen to 72 Monday, with 29 children among the dead. Senior police official Haider Ashraf confirmed the number, adding that most of the dead were Muslims.

A police commando stands guard at the cordoned-off site of the March 27 suicide bombing in Lahore a day after the attack © AFP Arif Ali
A police commando stands guard at the cordoned-off site of the March 27 suicide bombing in Lahore a day after the attack © AFP Arif Ali
“Everybody goes to this park,” he said.

A spokesman for the Lahore city administration put the number of Christians killed at “10-15” as authorities scrambled to identify the dead.

Bits of human flesh and torn cloth could be seen Monday around the bloodstained swings and merry-go-round where the bomb went off as children played.

Authorities said the park had seen a surge in people on Sunday thanks to Easter and the warm spring weather.

Some 8,000 were still there when the bomb was detonated in the early evening, park officials said.

“The militants went for a softer target because there was tight security for churches in Lahore,” said Cecil Shane Chaudry, executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Christian organisation.

Powerful military chief General Raheel Sharif vowed to bring those responsible to justice and said he “will never allow these savage inhumans to overrun our life and liberty”.

There were frenzied scenes at hospitals in the immediate aftermath, with staff treating casualties on floors and in corridors as officials tweeted calls for blood donations.

– ‘Flesh on the walls’ –

Rescuers use a stretcher to shift a body from a bomb blast site at a park in Lahore on March 27, 2016 © AFP Arif Ali
Rescuers use a stretcher to shift a body from a bomb blast site at a park in Lahore on March 27, 2016 © AFP Arif Ali
Lahore’s top administration official Muhammad Usman said around 100 of the wounded were either treated at the scene or quickly discharged. He said a further 180 had been admitted to hospital.

Javed Ali, who lives opposite the park near the city centre, said Sunday’s blast shattered the windows of his home.

“After 10 minutes I went outside. There was human flesh on the walls (near the site). People were crying, I could hear ambulances,” he said.

Schools and other government institutions were open Monday but three days of mourning have been announced in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.

Facebook activated its safety check system after the blast so people could tell friends and relatives they were safe, but a glitch meant notifications were sent to people all over the world.

The company later apologised.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed “grief and sorrow over the sad demise of innocent lives”.

The US labelled the bombing “cowardly” while Russian president Vladimir Putin branded it a “crime”.

Pakistan’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai tweeted: “Pakistan and the world must unite. Every life is precious and must be respected and protected.”

– ‘Fanatical violence’ –

Map showing the park in Lahore, Pakistan where a bombing Sunday left at least 72 people dead © AFP
Map showing the park in Lahore, Pakistan where a bombing Sunday left at least 72 people dead © AFP
The Vatican condemned the attack, calling it “fanatical violence against Christian minorities”, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for Islamabad to protect religious minorities.

Christians make up an estimated 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million people and have long faced discrimination.

Twin suicide attacks against churches in Lahore killed 17 people in March last year, sparking two days of rioting by thousands of Christians.

The country is still scarred by a Taliban assault on a Peshawar school in 2014 that killed 150 people, mostly children.

A military operation targeting insurgents was stepped up in response. Last year the death toll from militant attacks fell to its lowest since the Pakistani Taliban were formed in 2007.