LAHORE, Pakistan: A Taliban suicide bomber who attacked a Pakistani park thronging with families was targeting Christians, the group said Monday, as the death toll rose to 72, with children making up nearly half of the dead.
More than 200 people were hurt when explosives packed with ball bearings ripped through crowds near a children’s play area in the park in Lahore, where many had gathered to celebrate Easter.
“We carried out the Lahore attack as Christians are our target,” Ehansullah Ehsan, spokesman for the hardline Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), told Agence France-Presse by telephone from an undisclosed location.
He said the group would carry out more such attacks, vowing to target schools and colleges alongside government and military interests.
The attack was the worst so far this year in a country well-used to large-scale atrocities, and will further undermine already-fractious community ties in the huge Muslim-majority nation.
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 Agence France-Presse.
Rescue spokeswoman Deeba Shahbaz said the toll had risen to 72 Monday, with 29 children among the dead. Senior police official Haider Ashraf confirmed the number killed, adding the majority of the dead were Muslims.
“Everybody goes to this park,” he said.
Many wounded children were taken to Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital, some clearly in pain as doctors examined injuries to their legs, arms and faces Monday.
Doctors had described frenzied scenes at hospitals in the immediate aftermath of the attack, with staff treating casualties on floors and in corridors, as officials tweeted calls for blood donations.
‘Flesh on the walls’
Lahore’s top administration official Muhammad Usman said 233 were wounded. Late Sunday rescue officials had put the number of injured at more than 300.
Earlier, Usman said the bomber “blew himself up near the kids’ playing area where kids were on the swings.”
Javed Ali, a 35-year-old who lives opposite the park near the center of the city, said the force of Sunday’s blast shattered the windows of his home.
“After 10 minutes I went outside. There was human flesh on the walls of our house. People were crying, I could hear ambulances,” he said.
Schools and other government institutions were open, but three days of mourning have been announced in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, said commissioner Abdullah Sumbal.
Facebook activated its safety check system after the blast, so people could tell friends and relatives they were safe, but a glitch meant notifications were sent to people all over the world.
The company later apologized, but some users said the error meant news of the attack spread more quickly than it might otherwise have done.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his “grief and sorrow over the sad demise of innocent lives”.
His Indian counterpart Narendra Modi telephoned to say “the people of India stand with their Pakistani brethren in this hour of grief,” state media reported.
Powerful military chief General Raheel Sharif vowed to bring those responsible to justice and said he “will never allow these savage inhumans to over run our life and liberty”, according to a military spokesman.
The US labelled the incident “cowardly”, while 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.”
The Vatican condemned the attack, calling it “fanatical violence against Christian minorities,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for Islamabad to protect religious minorities.
Christians make up an estimated 1.6 percent of the Pakistan’s 200 million people, the vast majority of which are Muslim, and have long faced discrimination.
Twin suicide attacks against churches in Lahore killed 17 people in March last year, sparking two days of rioting by thousands of Christians.
Attacks targeting children have a special resonance in Pakistan, still scarred by a Taliban assault in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 150 people, mostly children.
A military operation targeting insurgents was stepped up in response, and last year the death toll from militant attacks fell to its lowest since the Pakistani Taliban were formed in 2007.