The suicide bombing attack on a popular park in Lahore where families were gathered on Sunday evening to celebrate Easter and enjoy the warm weather was aimed at Christians. At least 72 people were killed, including at least 29 children and 36 Christians is likely to rise as many were seriously injured.
Pope Francis called the bombing “execrable” and “cowardly” in his Regina Coeli address at St. Peter’s Square on Easter Monday. He expressed his closeness to the victims and their families and called for prayers.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack on Monday and confirmed that it had specifically aimed at Christians: “We carried out the Lahore attack as Christians are our targets”.
“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.” He said the group was planning more attacks and would be targeting schools and colleges alongside government and military sites.
On Tuesday Ehsan warned Pakistani media they could be the next target. “Everyone will get their turn in this war, especially the slave Pakistani media,” he tweeted. “We are just waiting for the appropriate time.”
The group split from the Pakistani Taliban briefly in 2014 and appeared to declare its allegiance to Islamic State but later rejoined the Taliban. In March 2015, it claimed responsibility for twin bomb attacks on a Catholic church near Lahore in which at least 15 people were killed. Christians make up around two per cent of Pakistan’s mainly Muslim population of 180 million. They have been targeted in attacks and riots in recent years.
Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his scheduled departure to Britain, where he had been due to meet Prime Minister David Cameron, and chaired an emergency meeting with army chiefs early on Monday. The Pakistani government later announced they would give authority to the military to crack down on Islamist militants in the province where the attacks took place. “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.”
Police arrested 50 suspects in three cities across eastern Pakistan’s Punjab region and a “huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered”.soon after the blast. In an operation led by the Pakistan army, more than 5,000 militant suspects were rounded up. Most were later released but 216 are being held for further questioning.
A state of emergency has been declared across Punjab, with schools and markets closed across the provincial capital for three days while other parts of the country observed a day of mourning.