ISLAMABAD — A powerful blast ripped through a public park in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore Sunday evening, killing at least 69 people and wounding around 300, including many children, rescue workers and officials said.
The blast, which appeared to be caused by a suicide bomber, occurred in a parking lot at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, said Haider Ashraf, a senior police official in Lahore.
Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast. Its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said Christians were the target.
“It was also to give a message to government that it cannot deter us even in their stronghold, Lahore,” the group quoted Ehsan as saying. Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, is the hometown of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the chief minister of the province.
Nawaz Sharif held a meeting to assess the security situation in Lahore, and the army convened an emergency meeting of the country’s intelligence agencies to begin to track down those responsible.
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, the local news media reported. The 67-acre park has walking paths as well as rides for children.
Victims described a scene of chaos and devastation soon after the blast.
“I was standing near the roller coaster when the blast occurred,” said a 10-year-old boy who gave his name as Usman and who was admitted to Shaikh 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.”
“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.”
His daughter was being treated at Jinnah Hospital Sunday night.
Yousaf Masih, 50, who said he is Christian, said: “We came to the park after the Easter church services. We brought our food basket along with us, and like the usual outing on our festivals, we were spending our day.
“There was a lot of rush due to Easter,” Masih said, adding that “a majority” of the people in that area of the park were Christian. “My children were playing cricket when we heard a huge blast on the main gate of the park. It was mayhem. Everyone was running for their lives. On our way out, we saw the body of the suicide bomber in the parking area.”
Others said security at the park was lax. “There was no security, as such, at the gates,” said Azhar Shah, 23, a student. “The guard sitting at the main gate was not checking anyone.”
Ashraf, the police official, said of the park: “It was a soft target. Innocent women and children and visitors from other cities have been targeted.”
He added, “Apparently, it seems like a suicide attack.”
The explosion coincided with violence in other parts of the country as hundreds of protesters took to the streets to condemn the Feb. 29 execution of Sunni radical Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri killed Salman Taseer, a governor who had campaigned for changes in the country’s blasphemy laws, in January 2011.
Sunday was the 40th day since Qadri’s execution, a mourning observance called Chaliswan in Pakistan, and drew his supporters into the streets of a number of cities, including Rawalpindi, one of the country’s largest urban areas.
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.
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 Red Zone, a high-security area that includes the Parliament building, the Supreme Court, and many diplomatic missions.
The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters but appeared to be overwhelmed by their numbers.
The protesters said they planned to hold a sit-in Monday in front of the Parliament building. Army troops were called in to secure government buildings. Schools and businesses in the city will remain closed Monday, the city’s school association and the Union of Lahore Traders said.
A state of emergency was imposed on hospitals in Lahore after the blast.