A large bomb exploded near the entry of a children’s park in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, killing at least 50 people and injuring at least 100 others, in an attack that sent shockwaves across a country often seemingly inured to violence.
The terror attack, one of the biggest in Pakistan since Islamists slaughtered more than 100 children at a massacre in an army school in 2014, was timed to coincide with the evening holiday rush at the park, one of the largest family recreation areas in Lahore.
The death toll was still rising on Sunday evening, with the city’s hospitals declaring a state of emergency. Many of the casualties were women and children.
Pakistani authorities said the bomb at Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park appeared to have been triggered by a suicide bomber, though they said they were still investigating. Pakistani media have speculated that members of Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority, out celebrating the Easter holiday, may have been the target.
Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province, home to more than 60 per cent of the population. As the political base of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who still operates out of his sprawling house in a Lahore suburb, the city is typically seen as one of Pakistan’s safest, relatively insulated from such attacks.
“I don’t remember so many casualties in a single terrorist attack in Lahore,” a senior police office in the city told the Financial Times.
The attack prompted renewed debate over Pakistan’s policy towards hardline Islamist groups, which they have traditionally deemed useful assets in regional power politics.
Security forces have cracked down on militant groups in some regions, since the brutal army school massacre galvanised public opinion. But analysts say authorities have yet to confront similar militant groups based in Punjab, where Mr Sharif derives much of his political support.
“As long as you don’t act against militants in the Punjab, you will remain vulnerable as a country,” Ikram Seghal, a respected defence and security commentator, told the FT. “There are well-entrenched militant outfits in the Punjab and there are indications of politicians in the province being sympathetic to them. This complacency must end now.”
A western diplomat in Islamabad also suggested that Pakistani authorities had turned a blind eye to hardline groups, now coming back to haunt the country. “There has to be a very major attack on militant groups in the Punjab,” he said.
Despite the bloodshed caused by militants, Islamist sentiment also runs high in Pakistan. A few weeks ago, thousands of people came out to pay their respects at the funeral of a man executed for assassinating a former governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer.
Taseer had enraged Islamists by calling for a pardon for Christian woman found guilty of blasphemy under the strict laws against any insult to Islam and calling for reform of the blasphemy laws. His assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was a policeman assigned as Taseer’s bodyguard.
On Sunday night in Islamabad the army was called to disperse thousands of Qadri supporters after they clashed with riot policemen near the main avenue leading to the national parliament.
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