Lahore, March 28 (IANS) A powerful blast ripped through a public park in Lahore where Christian families were celebrating Easter on Sunday, killing 69 people and wounding over 250, mostly women and children.
The blast, apparently caused by a suicide bomber, occurred in a parking lot at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, said Haider Ashraf, a senior police official here.
“Some 65-70 people have been killed, included women and children, and over 250 were injured,” an Edhi spokesperson told IANS.
The splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it deliberately targeted Christians on Easter Sunday.
“We claim responsibility for the attack on Christians as they were celebrating Easter,” a spokesperson for the terrorist group was quoted by the Telegraph as saying.
“It was part of our annual martyrdom attacks we have started this year,” he said and warned that more attacks would follow.
“We had been waiting for this occasion… we want to convey… to the prime minister that we we have arrived in Punjab and we will reach you,” it added.
The 67-acre park is frequented both by residents and visitors to the city, and is popular with families. It has walking paths as well as rides for children.
“It was a soft target. Innocent women and children and visitors from other cities have been targeted,” Ashraf said. “Apparently, it seems like a suicide attack.”
The explosion coincided with violence in other parts of the country as hundreds of protesters took to the streets to condemn the February 29 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who had killed Salman Taseer, a governor who campaigned for changes in the country’s blasphemy laws, in January 2011.
Sunday was the 40th day since Qadri’s execution, a mourning observance called ‘chehlum’ in Pakistan, and drew his supporters into the streets of a number of cities, including Rawalpindi, one of the country’s largest urban areas.
Taseer had tried to soften the blasphemy laws, which he said had been used to persecute religious minorities. But to many in Pakistan, the idea of altering the blasphemy laws was itself criminal, and to his supporters Qadri has become a revered figure.
Protesters clashed throughout the day with police in Islamabad, marching on the main avenues of the city and trying to force their way into the Red Zone, a high-security area that includes the parliament building, the Supreme Court and many diplomatic missions.
Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, but appeared to be overwhelmed by their numbers. The protesters said they planned to hold a sit-in on Sunday night in front of the parliament building. Army was called in to secure government buildings.
A state of emergency was imposed on hospitals in Lahore after the blast. Television footage showed rescue workers and ambulances rushing to the park and ferrying victims to hospitals.
Distraught relatives milled about in hospital corridors as the wounded were treated.
“There was no prior intelligence report about the attack,” Muhammad Usman, the district coordination officer in Lahore, told reporters.
Usman rebutted some reports that Christians were targeted in the blast. “The park belongs to all,” he was quoted as saying.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif announced a three-day mourning in the province.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and expressed his grief over the blast.
“The coward terrorists attacked children and women,” Modi said.
“It’s condemnable to attack innocent children and women. We are with the Pakistani nation at the time of this grief movement,” Express News quoted Modi as saying.
“Heard about the blast in Lahore. I strongly condemn it. My condolences to families of the deceased & prayers with the injured: PM,” Modi tweeted from his PMO India account.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf leader Imran Khan strongly condemned the blast. “Strongly condemn the terror attack in Lahore in which our innocent citizens including women & children lost their lives.”
The US condemned as “cowardly” the suicide attack, vowing to work with Pakistan to defeat those sowing terror in the country.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms today’s appalling terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a White House statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed shock over the deadly attack and expressed his desire to give all possible support in the hour of grief.
“I’m shocked by the terrorist attack in Lahore. My thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims. We will do what we can to help,” Cameron tweeted.
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 but has traditionally been more peaceful than other parts of Pakistan.