A powerful blast ripped through a public park in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday evening, killing at least 70 people and wounding over 250, including women and children, rescue workers and officials said.
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 in Lahore.
“Some 65-70 people have been killed, included women and children, and over 250 were injured,” an Edhi spokesperson told IANS.
The attack was claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan faction Jamaatul Ahrar, Dawn reported.
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.
These attacks come on the heels of Pakistani government’s announcement for Public Holidays for Easter.
As a first in Pakistani history, Holi, Diwali and Easter will now be Public Holidays in Pakistan.
Pakistan Parliament only recently adopted a resolution to this effect. Moved by lawmaker Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the resolution was adopted by the National Assembly to take steps to declare the festivals as holidays for minorities.
According to The Tribune, the Pakistan government has agreed to accept the resolution.
No one really objected to the resolution, reported Dawn.
It is understood that the attack was aimed at Pakistan’s Christian population who were Easter Sunday at Gulshan Iqbal Park.
The attack, claimed by a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, intentionally targeted Christians, the perpetrators say.
Christians makes up only 2% of the population, and tensions are high with the hardline Muslim core trying to implement a strict interpretation of Islamic law over the legal system.
In March last year, suicide bombers attacked a Christian community, also in Lahore, setting off two blasts that killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens more. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack too and warned of more to come.