Pakistani authorities hunted on Monday for breakaway Taliban terrorists who once declared loyalty to Islamic State after the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb targeting Christians, that killed at least 70 people.
The attack on Sunday evening in a busy park in the eastern city of Lahore, the powerbase of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, killed mostly women and children enjoying a weekend outing. Pakistan is a majority-Muslim state but has a Christian population of more than 2 million.
It was the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan since the December 2014 massacre of 134 school children at a military run academy in the city of Peshawar that prompted a big government crackdown on Islamist terrorism.
“We must bring the killers of our innocent brothers, sisters and children to justice and will never allow these savage inhumans to overrun our life and liberty,” military spokesman Asim Bajwa said in a post on social media.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack late on Sunday night, and issued a direct challenge to the government.
“The target was Christians,” said a faction spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said. “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore.”
Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s richest province, Punjab, and is seen as the country’s political and cultural heartland.
Sharif’s office condemned the blast as a cowardly act and said a response had been ordered, without elaborating.
Lahore, markets, schools and courts were closed on Monday as the city mourned.
Rescue services spokeswoman Deeba Shahnaz said at least 70 people were killed and about 340 were wounded, with 25 in serious condition.
The group has claimed responsibility for several big attacks after it split with the main Pakistani Taliban in 2014. It declared allegiance to the Islamic State but later said it was rejoining the Pakistani Taliban insurgency.
Pakistan has been plagued by terrorist violence for the last 15 years, since it joined a U.S.-led campaign against Islamist terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
While the army, police, government and Western interests have been the prime targets of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies, Christians and other religious minorities have also been attacked.
Nearly 80 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a church in the northwestern city of Peshawar in 2013.
The security forces have killed and arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists under the crackdown launched after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre.
Militant violence had eased but they retain the ability to launch devastating attacks.
Pakistan’s security agencies have long been accused of nurturing terrorists to use for help in pursuing security objectives in Afghanistan and against old rival India. But some, like the Pakistani Taliban, have turned against the state. They are fighting to topple the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Sharif’s opponents have accused him of tolerating terrorism in return for peace in his province, a charge he strongly denies.