Security forces Monday arrested a “number of terrorist suspects and facilitators” in at least five raids in cities across Punjab province, where Lahore is located, according to an army spokesman. The spokesman, Gen. Asim Bajwa, said “a huge cache of arms and ammunition” was recovered in the operations, but did not say where the weapons stockpile was found.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Lahore – in the eastern province of Punjab, one of his political strongholds – to visit the wounded in one of the city’s many hospitals, the premier’s office said.
The blast Sunday evening ripped through crowds of families celebrating Easter at the city’s largest park, transforming a joyful scene of picnicking families into a spectacle of chaos and horror. It was unclear how many of the dead were children.
“Our goal is not only to eliminate terror infrastructure but also the extremist mindset, which is a threat to our way of life,” the prime minister said from Lahore, according to a statement from his office. “We must take this war to the doors of of [these] terrorist groups,” he said. “God willing, we will wipe out them out.”
A splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the attack, which a spokesman said deliberately targeted Christians in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.
“It was our people who attacked the Christians in Lahore, celebrating Easter,” the spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said. “It’s our message to the government that we will carry out such attacks again until sharia [Islamic law] is imposed in the country.”
The identification card of the suicide bomber – who detonated his explosives near an area marked off for women and children – was discovered amid the debris, local media reported. The reports said the bomber was identified as Muhammad Yousaf Farid, born in 1988. Those reports could not immediately be confirmed.
Pakistan, a country of 190 million, has suffered for years from sectarian violence and Islamist militancy, including a Taliban-led insurgency in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. Christians make up only about one percent of Pakistan’s population, but have maintained a larger presence in Lahore.
In Islamabad on Monday, thousands of Muslim demonstrators protesting the execution of Islamist assassin Mumtaz Qadri staged a sit-in inside the city’s “Red Zone,” which is home to a number of vital government institutions, including parliament and the prime minister’s house.
The army was deployed Sunday night to protect government buildings, after the protestors rampaged across the city, damaging property and setting buildings alight. Mobile phone service was cut in the Red Zone overnight and on Monday morning, locals said.
Mumtaz Qadri, a former police commando, assassinated Punjab governor, Saleem Taseer, in 2011 over the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Most blasphemy cases are lodged against non-Muslims for violations such as desecrating the Quran, Islam’s holy book, according to rights monitors.
In Lahore on Sunday, Parveen Masih, a 30-year-old Christian woman, said she had gone to the park with her husband and kids to celebrate Easter. They were there when the bomb exploded.
“This attack was about nothing other than to sabotage our happiness,” Masih, who was wounded in the face, said in a telephone interview. “We had only a few days to celebrate, and they didn’t even let us enjoy those.”
The government of Punjab province announced three days of mourning. A statement from the office of Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, who is the prime minister’s brother, pledged that the culprits would be brought to trial.
“Those who targeted innocent citizens do not deserve to be called humans,” Shahbaz Sharif posted on his Twitter account. “We will hunt you down,” he said. And “make sure your terror infrastructure is dismantled completely.”
Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, met with his security advisers following the attack, , and they reached “key decisions” on how to respond, a statement from his office said.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, the Jamaat ul-Ahrar spokesman, declared that the militants would strike again in Punjab. The group broke away from the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban, in 2014, as a result of in-fighting between top commanders, and declared their support for the Islamic State. Jamaat ul-Ahrar rejoined the Taliban in March 2015, but still maintains its own faction within the group.
The top security official in the province, Haider Ashraf, said an initial forensic investigation into the attack concluded that the suicide bomber had packed more than 20 pounds of explosives in his vest. Ball bearings, typically used in bomb attacks to maximize casualties, were found at the scene, Ashraf said.
“We can say it was a suicide blast, in which most of the Christian families and Muslim families who went to Gulshan-e-Iqbal park to enjoy the holiday were targeted,” he said, adding that the attacker detonated his explosives near an area marked off for women.
Witnesses to the carnage described body parts scattered in the wake of the attack, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported. Images on social media showed panic and chaos in the moments after the blast, and medics ferrying the wounded away on stretchers.
In one case, four members of a single family were killed, a medic said. The only survivor was a 10-year-old boy, who was also injured.
“I was about to enter the park with my kids” when the explosion happened, said Anwar Ali, aresident of Lahore. “My kids started crying and I held them tightly when I saw the wounded.”
In a statement on Sunday, the State Department said that the United States “stands with the people and government of Pakistan at this difficult hour.”
“Attacks like these only deepen our shared resolve to defeat terrorism around the world,” the statement said.
The government of Punjab announced on its Twitter account that it was offering free rides to those who wished to donate blood to the victims.