LAHORE, Pakistan (REUTERS, AFP) - A suicide bomber killed at least 72 people, mostly women and children, at a park in Lahore on Sunday (March 27) in an attack claimed by a Pakistani Taleban faction which said it had targeted Christians.
More than 300 people were hurt when explosives packed with ball bearings ripped through crowds near a children’s play area in the park, leaving dozens dead or bloodied, officials said.
Witnesses described children screaming as people carried the injured in their arms, while frantic relatives searched for loved ones.
“We had gone to the park to enjoy the Easter holiday. There was a blast suddenly, I saw a huge ball of fire and four to six people of my family are injured. Two of them critical,” 53-year-old Arif Gill told AFP.
“This is not an attack against Christians, everybody is victim, there are many Muslims among the victims, everybody goes to the park to enjoy,” he added. “This is an attack against everybody.”
The explosion occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park close to children's swings. The park is a popular site for members of Lahore's Christian community, many of whom had gone there to celebrate the Easter weekend holiday.
Witnesses 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 gone to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park for a walk.
Officials said 72 people were killed and about 300 wounded. Police Superintendent Mustansar Feroz said most of the casualties were women and children.
The Taleban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack.
"The target was Christians," a spokesman for the faction, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said. "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."
Islamist militants in Pakistan have attacked Christians and other religious minorities often over the past decade. Many Christians accuse the government of doing little to protect them, saying politicians are quick to offer condolences after an attack but slow to take any concrete steps to improve security.
Mr Salman Rafique, a health adviser for the Punjab provincial government, said many of the wounded were undergoing emergency surgery in hospitals. "We fear that the death toll may climb considerably," he said.
TV footage showed children and women standing in pools of blood outside the park, crying and screaming as rescue workers, officials, police and bystanders carrying injured people to ambulances and private cars.
Dozens of women and children were 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," Ms 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?"
Mr Javed Ali, a 35-year-old resident who lives opposite the park, said the force of the blast shattered his home's windows.
"After 10 minutes I went outside. There was human flesh on the walls of our house. People were crying, I could hear ambulances. "It was overcrowded because of Easter, there were a lot of Christians there. It was so crowded I told my family not to go."
Mr Yousaf Masih, a father who was searching for his family, said: "My kids came here (to the park). I was at home, I saw the news on TV, but my wife and children were here."
Witnesses said the wounded were first rushed to hospital in rickshaws and other vehicles before dozens of ambulances arrived on the scene.
A Lahore rescue official confirmed the toll and said the number of injured stood at 340. The attack was the year's deadliest, with officials saying the toll was set to rise. There was no official confirmation of who was behind the attack late Sunday.
Sunday's blast was condemned by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who "expressed grief and sorrow over the sad demise of innocent lives", according to a statement by his office. He was later phoned by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, who said "the people of India stand with their Pakistani brethren in this hour of grief", according to state media.
Pakistan's Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai tweeted: "Pakistan and the world must unite. Every life is precious and must be respected and protected."
A military spokesman described the blast as a "suicide attack", adding that intelligence agencies were chasing all leads. Lahore officials said the army had been called to the scene of the attack. On social media Pakistanis were retweeting the call for blood donations, while Facebook activated its "Safety Check" for Lahore.
The government of Punjab province declared three days mourning.
Christians are a minority in the Muslim giant of around 200 million people, making up an estimated 1.6 per cent of the population, and have long faced discrimination. Attacks targeting children carry a special resonance in Pakistan, still scarred by its deadliest ever militant assault in which Taleban gunmen killed more than 150 people at a school in Peshawar in 2014, the majority of them students.
A military operation targeting insurgents was intensified after that attack, and in 2015 the number of people killed in militant assaults dropped to its lowest since the Pakistani Taleban were formed in 2007.
Lahore, capital of Punjab province, has been relatively peaceful in recent years. But the insurgents have demonstrated a chilling ability to continue attacks on soft targets. In January 2016 the Pakistani Taleban launched an assault on a university in Charsadda, near Peshawar, that left 21 dead and spurred a call to arm teachers as parents spoke of fears for their children.
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.
The United States, a strategic ally of Pakistan, called the incident "cowardly" and "appalling" and said in a statement: "The United States stands with the people and government of Pakistan at this difficult hour. We will continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region... to root out the scourge of terrorism."
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 190 million people, is plagued by a Taleban insurgency, criminal gangs and sectarian violence. Punjab is its biggest and wealthiest province but has traditionally been more peaceful than other parts of Pakistan.
Sharif's opponents have accused him of tolerating militancy in return for peace in his province, a charge he strongly denies