The brutality of Sunday's attack by Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, the group's
fifth bombing since December, reflects the movement's attempts to
raise its profile among Pakistan's increasingly fractured Islamist
At least 29 children enjoying an Easter weekend outing were among
those killed when the suicide bomber struck in a busy park in the
eastern city of Lahore, the power base of Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif. Pakistan is a majority-Muslim state but has a Christian
population of more than two million.
It was Pakistan's deadliest attack 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
Military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa said intelligence agencies, the
army and paramilitary Rangers had launched several raids around
Punjab following the attack.
"Number of suspect terrorists and facilitators arrested and huge
cache of arms and ammunition recovered," he said in a tweet that
gave no detail. He could not be reached for further comment.
Prime Minister Sharif toured hospitals full of victims, promising to
"Our resolve as a nation and as a government is getting stronger and
(the) coward enemy is trying for soft targets," Sharif said,
according to a statement from his office, calling for stronger
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack late on Sunday
night and issued a direct challenge to the government.
"The target was Christians," 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.
Markets, schools and courts in Lahore were closed on Monday as the
Rescue services spokeswoman Deeba Shahnaz said at least 29 children,
seven women and 34 men were killed and about 340 were wounded, with
25 in serious condition.
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar has claimed responsibility for several big attacks
since it split from the main Pakistani Taliban in 2014.
While it mostly focuses attacks in its base of the northwestern
Mohmand tribal area, it has previously carried out at least two
major attacks in Lahore: one in 2015 that targeted two Christian
churches and another at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan
in late 2014.
Pakistan has been plagued by militant violence for the last 15
years, since it joined a U.S.-led campaign against Islamist
militancy after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United
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.
[to top of second column]
Security forces have killed and arrested hundreds of suspected
militants under the crackdown launched after the 2014 Peshawar
Militant violence had eased but the groups retain the ability to
launch devastating attacks.
Most militants, like the Pakistani Taliban, are fighting to topple
the government and introduce a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
However, the entrance of the separate Islamic State ideology from
the Middle East - unlike the Taliban, Islamic State envisions a
global caliphate and emphasizes killing Christians and minority
Shi'a Muslims - has also raised worries it could intensify sectarian
violence in Pakistan.
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar in September 2014 swore allegiance to Islamic State,
also known as Daesh.
"We respect them. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and
decide," spokesman Ehsan told Reuters of Islamic State, while
rejecting the main Pakistani Taliban leadership.
By March 2015, however, the group was again swearing fealty to the
main Taliban umbrella leadership. The reason for its return to the
fold remains murky.
In the Pakistani capital of Islamabad earlier on Sunday, hundreds of
hard-line Muslim activists clashed with police in a protest over the
execution of a man they consider a hero for assassinating a governor
over his criticism of harsh blasphemy laws.
Bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in
2011. Taseer, a prominent liberal politician, had spoken in support
of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the law that mandates
capital punishment for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.
Qadri was executed last month.
There was no indication of a connection between the protest in
Islamabad and the bomb in Lahore.
However, in March, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar spokesman Ehsan said another
attack by the group - a suicide bombing that killed 10 at a court
near Mohmand - was "especially done as vengeance for the hanging of
(This version of the story was refiled to standardize name of group
(Reporting by Asad Hashim; Writing by Robert Birsel and Kay
Johnson.; Editing by Nick Macfie)
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.