A suicide bomber killed at least 70 people and injured more than 300 others, mostly women and children, at a public park in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, striking at the heart of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political base of Punjab.
The blast occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, a few metres away from children’s swings.
The attack, which occurred in a busy residential area during the Easter holiday weekend, was claimed by Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which said its target was Muslim Pakistan’s small Christian minority.
“The target were Christians,” said a spokesman for the faction, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore. He can do what he wants but he won’t be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks.”
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 190 million people, is plagued by a Taliban insurgency, criminal gangs and sectarian violence. Lahore is the regional capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
Eyewitnesses said they saw body parts strewn across the parking lot once the dust had settled after the blast.
“When the blast occurred, the flames were so high they reached above the trees and I saw bodies flying in the air,” said Hasan Imran, 30, a resident who had come to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park for a walk.
Rescue services spokeswoman Deeba Shahnaz said at least 70 people were killed and about 340 were wounded, with 25 in serious condition.
One witness, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Afzal, told AP that he had taken 20 children to hospital and carried three dead bodies to a police car. “I can’t explain to you the tragic situation,” he said.
Mustansar Feroz, police superintendent for the area in which the park is located, said most of the injured and dead were women and children.
‘May god shower his wrath’
Media footage showed children and women standing in pools of blood outside the park, crying and screaming while rescue officials, police and bystanders carried injured people to ambulances and private cars.
Dozens of women and children were seen being wheeled into hospitals, covered in blood. Many of the injured were transported to hospitals on taxis and auto-rickshaws due to a shortage of ambulances. Hundreds of citizens arrived outside hospitals to donate blood.
Local television channels reported that many of the dead bodies were being kept in hospital wards as morgues were overcrowded.
“We were just here to have a nice evening and enjoy the weather,” Nasreen Bibi said at the Services Hospital, crying as she waited for doctors to update her on the condition of her two-year-old injured daughter.
“May God shower his wrath upon these attackers. What kind of people target little children in a park?”
Authorities launched a hunt on Monday for the people behind the attack.
“We must bring the killers of our innocent brothers, sisters and children to justice and will never allow these savage inhumans to over-run our life and liberty,” military spokesman Asim Bajwa said in a post on Twitter.
Pakistan has been plagued by militant violence for the last 15 years, since it joined a US-led campaign against Islamist militancy after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the US.
Prime minister’s heartland
Soon after the attack, the Punjab government ordered all public parks to be closed and announced three days of mourning in the province. The main shopping areas were shut down and many of the city’s main roads were deserted.
The army was called in to control crowds outside the park. Some distraught, sobbing relatives clashed with police and rescue officials.
Lahore has been relatively peaceful in recent years.
It is widely seen as the political heartland of Sharif and his ruling party.
Sharif’s office condemned the blast as a cowardly act and said a response had been ordered, without elaborating.
The prime minister’s opponents have accused him of tolerating militancy in return for peace in his province, a charge he strongly denies.
Last year, a bomb killed a Pakistani provincial minister and over 20 others when it destroyed the minister’s home in Punjab.