A suicide bomber has killed at least 65 people and injured more than 300 others — mostly women and children — at a public park in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
The blast occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park — situated at the heart of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political base of Punjab — a few metres away from children’s swings.
The Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it targeted Muslim Pakistan’s small Christian minority.
Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 190 million people, is plagued by a Taliban insurgency, criminal gangs and sectarian violence — Punjab is its biggest and wealthiest province.
Eyewitnesses said they saw body parts strewn across the parking lot once the dust had settled after the blast, which struck in a busy residential area during the Easter holiday weekend.
“When the blast occurred, the flames were so high they reached above the trees and I saw bodies flying in the air,” said Hasan Imran, 30, a resident who had come to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park for a walk.
Officials said 65 people were killed and about 300 wounded.
“Many are in operation theatres now being treated and we fear that the death toll may climb considerably,” Salman Rafique, a health adviser for the Punjab provincial government, said.
Mustansar Feroz, police superintendent for the area in which the park is located, said “most of the dead and injured are women and children”.
The United States, a strategic ally of Pakistan, condemned the attack.
“We will continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region … to root out the scourge of terrorism,” White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
‘What kind of people target little children?’
Media footage showed children and women crying and screaming and rescue officials, police and bystanders carrying injured people to ambulances and private cars.
Dozens of women and children were seen being wheeled into hospitals, covered in blood. Many of the injured were transported to hospitals on taxis and auto-rickshaws due to a shortage of ambulances.
Hundreds of citizens arrived outside hospitals to donate blood.
Local television channels reported that many of the bodies were being kept in hospital wards as morgues were overcrowded.
“We were just here to have a nice evening and enjoy the weather,” Nasreen Bibi said at the Services Hospital, crying as she waited for doctors to update her on the condition of her two-year-old injured daughter.
“May God shower his wrath upon these attackers. What kind of people target little children in a park?”
Soon after the attack, the Punjab Government ordered all public parks to be closed and announced three days of mourning in the province. The main shopping areas were shut down and many of the city’s main roads were deserted.
The army was called in to control crowds outside the park. Some distraught, sobbing relatives clashed with police and rescue officials.
Punjab has traditionally been more peaceful than other parts of Pakistan. Mr Sharif’s opponents have accused him of tolerating militancy in return for peace in his province, a charge he strongly denies.
Last year, a bomb killed a popular Pakistani provincial minister and at least eight others when it destroyed the minister’s home in Punjab.