LAHORE , Pakistan – Zainab Iqbal, age 8, had been asking her father for days to take the family to the amusement park on the last night of spring break. Sunday, she got her wish. Monday, they buried her.
Pakistan began mourning its dead Monday after a devastating suicide bomb attack Sunday on a park in Lahore killed more than 70 people, including at least 29 children. Officials vowed to hunt down the Islamist militant bombers who claimed they targeted Christians on Easter Sunday — and killed many of their Muslim brethren in the bargain.
Security forces arrested a “number of terrorist suspects and facilitators” in at least five separate raids in cities across Punjab province, where Lahore is located, according to Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, an army spokesman. Bajwa also said that “a huge cache of arms and ammunition” was recovered in the operations, but he did not say where the weapons stockpile was found.
Police in Lahore said Monday that they were investigating whether the suicide bomber — who detonated an explosives-packed vest in a crowded park Sunday evening — had accomplices. The blast ripped through crowds of families celebrating Easter and a school break at the city’s largest park, transforming a joyful scene into a spectacle of chaos and horror. The city was in a period of official mourning Monday, with schools and markets closed and little traffic.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis on Monday decried the Easter bombing as “vile and abominable” and called for Pakistan’s religious minorities to be protected. He urged authorities in Pakistan to “make every effort to restore security and serenity” to Pakistanis, according to the Vatican’s website.
Pakistani authorities noted that more Muslims were killed and injured than Christians. Of those who died at the scene, 14 were Christian, 44 were Muslim and nine could not immediately be identified, according to Muhammad Iqbal, the superintendent of police for operations in Lahore.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Lahore, which is one of his political strongholds, to visit the wounded in one of the city’s many hospitals, the premier’s office said. He also announced he was canceling a planned trip to Washington to attend a nuclear summit later this week.
“Our goal is not only to eliminate terror infrastructure but also the extremist mindset, which is a threat to our way of life,” Sharif said from Lahore, according to a statement from his office. “We must take this war to the doors of [these] terrorist groups,” he said. “God willing, we will wipe out them out.”
A splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying, “it was our people who attacked the Christians in Lahore, celebrating Easter.”
On Monday, little remained of the carnage at the scene at Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, a leafy oasis in Pakistan’s second largest city.
Police had cordoned off the blood-stained area between a fountain and a bumper car ride in the small children’s amusement area where the tragedy occurred. Objects were left like small grace notes — a jeweled sandal, mangled reading glasses, a child’s shoe.
The identification card of the suicide bomber was discovered amid the debris, local media reported. The reports said the bomber was identified as Muhammad Yousaf Farid, born in 1988. Those reports could not immediately be confirmed.
At Jinnah Hospital in Lahore, where about half of more than 300 injured were taken Sunday night, 67 remained hospitalized with a variety of injuries, including burns and shrapnel wounds, doctors said. Politicians and TV anchors weaved through the beds, where occupants were labeled “blast victim.”
Among them were two small children, their beds marked with signs saying “unknown,” whose family died in the blast and who had yet to be linked with other relatives.
Some were still clearly in shock. Zeeshan Taaj, 23, had been walking through the park on his way back from a pickup cricket match when the bomb detonated. He injured his leg in the aftermath and is trying to come to terms with what he saw: “Fire and smoke,” he said “I have seen chopped legs blown off, heads and dead bodies scattered all around me.” A friend tried to comfort him by tucking a sheet around his still bloodied leg wound.
In another bed, Tasleem Sultan, 40, described how she and four other adult family members took eight children to the kiddie amusement park Sunday night and found it bustling on the warm evening. Her niece, Zainab, had donned her best red dress and put flower-shaped barrettes in her hair for the occasion. She rode an elephant on the merry-go-round. She was holding her aunt’s hand when the force of the explosion separated them.
Later, her father found Zainab, bleeding and lifeless.
“I was weeping. I am still in shock,” Jamshaid Iqbal, 35, said in an interview at his family home after her funeral.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” said Rani Farzand, a teacher and neighbor of the murdered girl. “The kids are not safe in the parks, in the schools, in the mosques. Where should we send our children? What should we do?”
Pakistan, a country of 190 million, has suffered for years from sectarian violence and Islamist militancy, including a Taliban-led insurgency in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. Christians make up only about 1 percent of Pakistan’s population but have maintained a larger presence in Lahore. Recent terror attacks targeting minorities and schools have left many ordinary Pakistanis scared and on edge.
In Islamabad on Monday, thousands of Muslim demonstrators protesting the execution of Islamist assassin Mumtaz Qadri staged a sit-in inside the city’s “Red Zone,” which is home to a number of vital government institutions, including parliament and the prime minister’s house. Mumtaz Qadri assassinated Punjab’s governor, Saleem Taseer, in 2011 over the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Most blasphemy cases are lodged against non-Muslims for violations such as desecrating the Koran, Islam’s holy book, according to rights monitors. The army was deployed Sunday night to protect government buildings after the protesters rampaged across the city, damaging property and setting buildings on fire.
Erin Cunningham in Kabul, Babar Dogar in Lahore and Haq Nawaz Khan and Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar, Pakstan, contributed to this report.