People mourn over the coffin of a victim a day after a suicide bomb attack at a park, in Lahore, Pakistan. At least 70 people, including women and children, were killed in an attack that targeted a public park in Lahore.(RAHAT DAR / EPA)
Eric John, bottom, who survived Sunday’s attack, cries during the funeral of his cousin. The death toll from a massive suicide bombing targeting Christians gathered on Easter in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore rose on Monday as the country started observing a three-day mourning period following the attack.(K.M. Chaudary / Associated Press)
Women try to comfort a mother who lost her son in bomb attack in Lahore, Pakistan.(K.M. Chaudary / Associated Press)
Members of a civil society group light candles during a vigil for the victims of Sunday’s suicide bombing in Karachi, Pakistan.(Shakil Adil / Associated Press)
Pakistani Christians mourn the death of a blast victim in Lahore. Pakistan’s army launched raids and arrested suspects after a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families.(ARIF ALI / AFP/Getty Images)
The scene of the attack on the day after the blast in Lahore, Pakistan.(RAHAT DAR / EPA)
Pakistani Christians mourn a blast victim at a cemetery in Lahore.(ARIF ALI / AFP/Getty Images)
People mourn over the coffin of a victim a day after a suicide bomb attack at a park, in Lahore, Pakistan.(RAHAT DAR / EPA)
People who were injured in a suicide bomb attack are hospitalized in Lahore, Pakistan.(Omer Saleem / EPA)
Pakistani police officers stand guard at the site of a bomb blast in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday.(K.M. Chuadary / AP)
A woman injured in the bomb blast is comforted by a family member at a local hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday.(K.M. Chuadary / AP)
A man carries an injured child to a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday.(Arif Ali / AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers carry a body from a bomb blast site in Lahore, Pakistan, in an ambulance Sunday.(ARIF ALI / AFP/Getty Images)
As families buried their children and doctors tended to scores of seriously wounded, the Pakistani military on Monday vowed a major operation to avenge a suicide bombing at a crowded public park in the eastern city of Lahore.
Officials raised the death toll in the Sunday evening bombing to 72 people, including at least 25 children. The explosion occurred as the park was packed with families celebrating Easter, among them members of Lahore’s Christian minority, although the vast majority of casualties were Muslims. About 300 more were injured.
“What was the crime of these kids, whether they were from Christian or Muslim families?” said Muhammad Imtiaz, 32, whose brother-in-law was killed in the bombing and sister remained unaccounted for. Two of his nephews were injured.
Pakistan’s powerful army seized the initiative from the civilian government, with military officials saying that soldiers and paramilitary forces would conduct a “full-blown” operation against militants across the populous eastern state of Punjab, particularly in southern areas that are believed to be extremist strongholds.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban militant federation, claimed responsibility for the bombing and said it targeted Christians, who make up less than 2% of Pakistan’s population of 182 million. Officials said at least 14 Christians were among the dead.
“Terrorists have assassinated my sons and daughters in this war and, God willing, we will wipe them out from this country,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who hails from Lahore, Pakistan’s second most populous city.
It was not the first time that Pakistanis have heard such resolve from their leaders. In December 2014, following a massacre at an army-run public school in the northeast that left 150 people dead -- most of them children -- the government and military launched a harsh crackdown against militants that included reinstating the death penalty for terrorism suspects.
Pakistan has since put more than 320 people to death, including many death row inmates whose cases were unrelated to terrorism. Militant violence is down overall, but many Pakistanis believe the government’s policies have not made them safer – particularly as the Pakistani Taliban and its offshoots continue to wage headline-grabbing attacks against civilians.
After Sunday’s explosion, which took place in a parking lot near a set of children’s swings at the expansive Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, Imtiaz rushed to a hospital to search for his sister and her family, who had been at the park. He found a scene of chaos, including the mangled bodies of children and medical staff tending to injury victims in overflowing corridors.
“There were bodies everywhere,” said Imtiaz, 32. “I saw blood on the floor of the hospital while dozens of injured were crying. They were horrible scenes.”
Peter Jacob, a Lahore-based Christian human rights activist, said the Christian community took precautions in the week leading up to Easter Sunday and that government forces had provided security to major Christian neighborhoods in the city. But witnesses said the park was a soft target, with scant security on Sunday evening.
“The government and Christian community were vigilant during Holy Week … but terrorists somehow had information about vulnerable areas,” Jacob said. “Instead of hitting Christians in their neighborhoods, they attacked them at public places.”
Analysts said the attack was also directed at Sharif, who is from Lahore, and aimed at demonstrating that militants retained the capacity to stage deadly attacks despite nearly two years of military operations against their hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Politically the attack “hurts Nawaz Sharif the most,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent security analyst in Lahore. “The attack also means that terrorists groups still have a strong network in cities like Lahore.”
Many Lahore residents rushed to donate blood, resulting in long lines at city hospitals. Television channels broadcast footage of families observing funerals and of investigators wearing face masks searching an amusement park ride that was near the blast site.
“The whole country is in a state of shock,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “That these people can be so heartless and so cruel that they would kill children and women playing in the park – it’s really shocking.”
Sahi is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.
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