The Taleban faction has claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed at least 65 people in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, saying the target of its attack was Muslim Pakistan’s small Christian minority.
Dozens of ambulances were seen racing to the park, situated near the centre of the city of around 8 million, with many women and children among the dead and wounded.
“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.”
Militants in Pakistan have attacked Christians and other religious minorities often over the past decade. Christians have accused the government of doing little to protect them.
The army had been called in, he said, and soldiers were at the scene helping with rescue operations and security.
Senior police official Haider Ashraf said the blast appeared to be a suicide attack, adding that ball bearings were found at the crowded park.
A medical superintendent at Jinnah Hospital, who gave his name only as Dr Ashraf, told AFP more than 40 dead bodies had arrived at the hospital.
“The number of injured stands at more than 200 people, most of them are in critical condition,” he said. I fear the death toll will rise.”
He described a nightmarish scene at the hospital, with staff treating casualties on floors and in corridors.
Javed Ali, a 35-year-old resident who lives opposite park, said the force of the blast had shattered his home’s windows.
“Everything was shaking, there were cries and dust everywhere.
“After 10 minutes I went outside. There was human flesh on the walls of our house. People were crying, I could hear ambulances.”
He added: “It was overcrowded because of Easter, there were a lot of Christians there. It was so crowded I told my family not to go.”
Pakistan has been battling homegrown insurgency since 2004, with groups such as the Pakistani Taleban routinely carrying out attacks as part of their struggle to overthrow the government.
But Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital that lies on the country’s eastern border with India, has been relatively more peaceful in recent years.
Nationwide, overall levels of militant violence have fallen since the army began a major offensive against Taleban and Al Qaeda strongholds in the country’s northwest border areas in 2014.
Last year saw the lowest number of civilian and security forces casualties since 2007, the year the umbrella Pakistani Taleban group was formed.
But militants are still able to carry out major attacks from time to time.
At least 16 people were killed and more than two dozen wounded when a bomb blew up inside a bus in Peshawar, the main city of Pakistan’s insurgency-wracked northwest on March 16.
And Sunday’s blast in Lahore saw the highest number of casualties since a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 55 people at the main Pakistan-India border crossing at Wagah in an attack claimed by the Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Taleban.
It also came as police in the capital Islamabad clashed with thousands of supporters of an assassin, almost a month after he was hanged for killing a provincial governor for alleged blasphemy.