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Pakistan blast: Christians the target of Lahore suicide bomber

Islamabad: A suicide bomber set off a powerful blast close to children's swings in a public park in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, killing at least 69 people and wounding about 300, rescue workers and officials said.

Taliban faction claims deadly Pakistan blast

A Taliban faction has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 65 people and injured almost 300 more at a public park in Lahore, Pakistan.

The blast on Sunday evening in a parking lot at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, was within a few metres of the swings in a park crowded with families on the Easter holiday,  said Haider Ashraf, a senior police official.

"I was standing near the rollercoaster when the blast occurred," said a ten-year-old boy who gave his name as Usman Ghani, and was being treated for minor injuries at Sheikh Zayed Hospital. "I saw fire afterward. There were a lot of people in the park. It was so crowded that people had to break the boundary wall near the gate to cross over and run away."

Distraught women hug one another following a suicide bomb attack in Lahore.
Distraught women hug one another following a suicide bomb attack in Lahore.  Photo: AP

"I wish I hadn't brought my daughter to the park today," said Kamran Bhatti, 34, a frequent visitor to the park. "This is the only recreation we can afford for her. What is her fault?"

He continued: "While we were running out of the park, my daughter slipped and rolled over. She's injured, but I thank my God that we are not crying for a lost child."

A state of emergency was imposed on hospitals in Lahore after Sunday's blast. Private television networks broadcast images of 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.

Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast. Its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said that Christians were the target.

A man injured by the bomb blast talks on his  phone at a local hospital in Lahore on Sunday.
A man injured by the bomb blast talks on his phone at a local hospital in Lahore on Sunday.  Photo: AP

It was the third bombing in Pakistan in this month alone, a reminder that even as the military has cracked down on extremists during the past two years, Islamist groups remain a potent threat.

The bombing also came as large protests were held in other parts of the country to protest the February execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered a secular politician five years ago. While public opinion has largely been galvanised by attacks on civilians by jihadists, particularly the killing of 150 people at a school in Peshawar in 2014, the protests are a sign that widespread sympathy remains for extremist groups in Pakistan.

A woman injured in the bomb blast is comforted by a relative at a hospital in Lahore on Sunday.
A woman injured in the bomb blast is comforted by a relative at a hospital in Lahore on Sunday.  Photo: AP

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets to condemn the February 29 execution of Qadri. Qadri killed Salman Taseer, a governor who had campaigned for changes in the country's blasphemy laws, in January 2011.

Taseer had tried to soften Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which he said had been used to persecute religious minorities. But to many in Pakistan, the idea of altering the country's blasphemy laws is itself criminal, and to his supporters Qadri has become a revered figure.

A woman weeps for her injured relatives as she tries to speak to security at a hospital in Lahore on Sunday.
A woman weeps for her injured relatives as she tries to speak to security at a hospital in Lahore on Sunday.  Photo: AP

Protesters clashed throughout the day with police officers in Islamabad, the country's capital, marching on the main avenues of the city and trying to force their way into the city's "red zone", a high-security area that includes the parliament, the Supreme Court and many diplomatic missions. They set several vehicles, including a fire truck, on fire and damaged public property.

The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, but appeared to be overwhelmed by their numbers. Troops were called in to secure government buildings.

A man at the scene of Sunday's bomb blast in Lahore waits for news of relatives.
A man at the scene of Sunday's bomb blast in Lahore waits for news of relatives. Photo: AP

The Jamaat-e-Ahrar spokesman, Ehsan, said the bombing in Lahore "was also to give a message to government that it cannot deter us even in their stronghold, Lahore".

Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, is the hometown of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is chief minister of the province.

Pakistani police officers stand guard at the site of the bomb blast in Lahore on Sunday.
Pakistani police officers stand guard at the site of the bomb blast in Lahore on Sunday.  Photo: AP

Even though Pakistani officials rebutted the claim that Christians were the target, a large number of Christian families were in the park because of the Easter holiday,  local news media reported. The 27-hectare park has walking paths as well as rides for children.

As the country reeled from this latest spasm of violence, the civilian and military leadership huddled separately to deal with the precipitating sense of crisis.

Pakistani police officers and rescue workers gather at the site of the bomb explosion in Lahore in Sunday.
Pakistani police officers and rescue workers gather at the site of the bomb explosion in Lahore in Sunday.  Photo: AP

Nawaz Sharif held a four-hour meeting with his top ministers while General Raheel Sharif, the army chief, also directed intelligence agencies to investigate the attack and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Since the beginning of this year, Pakistan has been shaken by a series of attacks. A suicide attack on a court in Peshawar in retribution for Qadri's execution killed 16. The attack was also claimed by Jamaat-e-Ahrar. Also this month, a bomb left on a bus carrying government employees in Peshawar killed 14.

Pakistani rescue workers remove a body from the site of  the Lahore blast on Sunday.
Pakistani rescue workers remove a body from the site of the Lahore blast on Sunday.  Photo: AP

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