LAHORE, Pakistan — Shock and grief enveloped Pakistan on Monday as the official death toll from a suicide attack in Lahore a day earlier rose to 72, with 341 people wounded.
Investigators said a suicide bomber had explosives in a vest during the evening rush hour Sunday at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest public parks in this eastern city.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted Christians. Pakistani officials were skeptical about the claim, as most of those killed and wounded were Muslims. But because Sunday was Easter, a large number of Christian families had visited the park.
Of the 72 dead, 14 have been identified as Christians and 44 as Muslims, the Associated Press reported, citing Lahore Police Superintendent Mohammed Iqbal. The rest have not been identified.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Lahore Monday and visited Jinnah Hospital to show solidarity with the victims. He said he was deeply grieved and vowed to bring the culprits to justice.
Later, he met with senior government officials and pledged to eliminate terrorism.
“Our resolve as a nation and as a government is getting stronger, and the cowardly enemy is trying for soft targets,” Sharif said during the meeting. “Our goal is not only to eliminate terror infrastructure but also the extremist mindset, which is a threat to our way of life.”
Sharif was planning to address the nation Monday evening, his press office said.
The military’s chief spokesman, Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, said Monday that intelligence raids had been carried out in three cities in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, after the bomb attack, and that a “number of terrorists and facilitators were arrested.”
However, he gave no details about the identities of those arrested or whether they were connected to Sunday’s bombing.
According to hospital sources, 252 people had been admitted to hospitals in the city by 10 a.m. Monday, while 89 had been discharged. Of the wounded, 26 were in critical condition, officials said.
An initial police report said that four young men had been approached by a police officer near the entrance to the park Sunday evening. Three of them managed to escape, but the fourth ran through the gate and detonated his explosives. At least 10 kilograms of explosives was used in the bombing, the police said.
Lahore, widely considered the cultural and political capital of Pakistan, appeared in mourning Monday. Most of the commercial centers and shopping areas were closed, and security forces were on high alert. A three-day spring festival at Race Course Park in Lahore was canceled.
The police cordoned off the blast site for forensic investigation. On Monday afternoon, shoes and shreds of clothing were strewn about in the parking lot of the park.
At hospitals, chaos and anxiety prevailed as relatives kept pouring in to visit the wounded.
Rashida Bibi, 50, who was being treated for head injuries, said she and 32 members of her extended family had come to Lahore from Sahiwal, another city in Punjab, to enjoy Sunday. “We were at the swings. Suddenly there was a blast and I fell down. Children and women started screaming and soon rescue workers arrived. I cannot describe the terrible scenes,” Bibi said.
Meanwhile, at least 2,000 protesters continued a sit-in outside Parliament in the national capital, Islamabad.
The protesters had rampaged through the city Sunday after holding a rally in neighboring Rawalpindi to express support for Mumtaz Qadri, a former police guard who was executed on Feb. 29 for the 2011 killing of a governor, Salman Taseer. Taseer had called for changes in the country’s blasphemy laws, saying they were being used to persecute religious minorities.
To hard-line Islamists and religious parties, any change to the blasphemy laws is unacceptable, and they have campaigned violently against such proposals, portraying Qadri as a hero.
On Monday, the protesters presented their demands to the government. They included declaring Qadri an official martyr, imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan, and the immediate execution of all those convicted of blasphemy.
District officials in Islamabad and leaders of the protesters were in negotiations Monday afternoon to end the sit-in. However, political analysts said they expected a protracted standoff, as the government was unlikely to accede to the demands.
Troops had been deployed in Islamabad to secure the Parliament and other important buildings, including the headquarters of the Supreme Court and a large complex of apartment blocks for Parliament members.
Mobile phone service in some parts of the capital was suspended by the authorities.
The attack in Lahore, which is also Sharif’s political stronghold, has drawn new attention to the government’s efforts to stem terror in the country and has renewed calls for action against militant groups in Punjab.
Previously, Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, had resisted calls for an army operation in the province.
Senior police officials had also refused to consider military action, saying that the provincial police are capable of handling the militants.