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Taliban says it targeted Christians in a park on Easter Sunday, killing 70

A bomb ripped through a public park packed with families celebrating Easter in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday evening, killing at least 70 people and wounding more than 300 others, most of them women and children, officials said.

A suicide bomber set off an explosive vest packed with ball bearings in a parking lot just feet away from amusement park rides in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, located in a mostly residential neighborhood of western Lahore.

A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast, which it said was aimed at Christians celebrating the Easter holiday. Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, has a small Christian minority. Officials said they had not confirmed if Christians were the target.

Pakistani news media, quoting officials in Lahore, said 70 people had been killed and that many others were in critical condition.

The bloodshed overwhelmed rescue agencies in Pakistan’s second largest city. Victims jammed Lahore’s hospitals, spilling into the corridors where doctors and medical staff raced to treat them. Many more victims arrived at medical facilities in taxis or motorized rickshaws because ambulances were full.

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Pakistani soldiers cordoned off the area as television images showed bloodied bodies being covered in bags and distraught parents being led from the park by police officers.

Pakistani security officials condemned the “savage” attack and said intelligence agencies would find the perpetrators. The chief minister of Punjab state announced three days of official mourning.

“We must bring the killers of our innocent brothers, sisters & children to justice,” tweeted Gen. Asim Bajwa, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman.

It was deadliest attack in Pakistan since the December 2014 massacre at an army-run school that left 143 people dead, most of them children, and marked a devastating new turn in militant violence against Pakistani civilians.

The Pakistani Taliban, a federation of insurgent groups that aims to overthrow the Pakistani government, continues to mount brazen attacks despite a nearly two-year military offensive against militant hideouts in the country’s northern tribal belt.

The group that claimed responsibility for Sunday’s blast, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban, split with the federation in 2014 and is believed to have carried out a major attack in Lahore later that year that killed at least 60 people near the Indian border.

In January, a separate splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for a raid on a university in the northeastern town of Peshawar that killed 21, many of them students who were shot at close range in their dormitories.

Christians, who make up less than 2% of Pakistan’s 182 million people, have frequently been targeted by Pakistani extremist groups. In 2013, 75 Christians were killed in a suicide bombing at a church in the northeastern city of Peshawar.

Lahore, a cosmopolitan city of more than 12 million and the seat of power in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s home state of Punjab, has been less scathed by militant violence than other major Pakistani cities. The park where the attack occurred sits on nearly 70 acres and includes a large man-made lake, zip-lines and a rock-climbing wall.

The White House, in a statement, condemned the attack on “what has long been a scenic and placid park.”

“We send our deepest condolences to the loved ones of those killed, just as our thoughts and prayers are with the many injured in the explosion,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said.

Since 2003, more than 21,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed in militant violence, according to statistics by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, an independent group that tracks the fatalities.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

March 28, 1:03 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.

1:24 p.m.: This article was updated with staff copy throughout.

12:33 p.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll and more information from witnesses.

11:46 a.m.: This article was updated with news that a Taliban faction has claimed responsibility for the attack.

10:21 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll.

8:52 a.m.: This article was updated with a higher death doll and more details of the attack.

This article was originally published at 8:23 a.m.

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