ABOVE PHOTO: Christians attend Easter Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Sunday, March 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
By Zarar Khan and Kathy Gannon
LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan’s prime minister on Monday vowed to eliminate perpetrators of terror attacks such as the massive suicide bombing that targeted Christians gathered for Easter the previous day in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 70 people.
The attack underscored both the militants’ ability to stage large-scale attacks despite a months-long government offensive against them and the precarious position of Pakistan’s minority Christians. A breakaway Taliban faction, which publicly supports the Islamic State group, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Meanwhile, in the capital of Islamabad, extremists protested for a second day outside Parliament and other key buildings in the city center. The demonstrators set cars on fire, demanding that authorities impose Islamic law or Sharia. The army, which was deployed Sunday to contain the rioters, remained out on the streets.
The military reported raids in eastern Punjab province, where several deadly militant organizations are headquartered, and said dozens were arrested. Also Monday, Pakistan started observing a three-day mourning period declared after the Lahore attack.
The Lahore bombing took place in a park that was crowded with families, with many women and children among the victims. At least 300 people were wounded in the bombing.
Even though a breakaway Taliban group, known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, said it specifically targeted Pakistan’s Christian community, most of those killed in Lahore were Muslims, who were also gathered in the park for the Sunday weekend holiday. The park is a popular spot in the heart of Lahore.
Of the dead, 14 have been identified as Christians and 44 as Muslim, according to Lahore Police Superintendent Mohammed Iqbal. Another 12 bodies have not yet been identified, he said.
Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the breakaway Taliban faction, told The Associated Press late Sunday that along with striking Christians celebrating Easter, the attack also meant to protest Pakistan’s military operation in the tribal regions. The same militant group also took responsibility for the twin bombings of a Christian Church in Lahore last year.
In recent weeks, Pakistan’s Islamist parties have been threatening widespread demonstration to protest what they say is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s pro-Western stance. They have also denounced provincial draft legislation in Punjab outlawing violence against women.
Sharif had earlier this month officially recognized holidays celebrated by the country’s minority religions, the Hindu festival of Holi and the Christian holiday of Easter.
After a meeting with his security officials Monday, the prime minister called the perpetrators of the Lahore attack “cowards” and vowed to defeat the “extremist mindset.” Sharif also cancelled a planned trip to Great Britain.
In Lahore, dozens of families were bidding final farewell to their slain kin during funeral ceremonies Monday.
Shama Pervez, widowed mother of 11-year-old Sahil Pervez who died in the blast, was inconsolable during funeral prayers. Her son, a fifth grader at a local Catholic school, had pleaded with her to go to the park rather than stay home on Sunday, and she said she finally gave in.
On the outskirts of Lahore, in the Christian area of Youhanabad, mourners crowded into a church that was targeted in an attack a year ago.
“How long will we have to go on burying our children,” said Aerial Masih, the uncle of Junaid Yousaf, one of the victims in Sunday’s bombing.
Ten members of Qasim Ali’s family were killed Sunday in the park, all Muslims. His 10 year-old nephew Fahad Ali lay in a a bed in is home, his battered body almost completely damaged. He had lost his parents and a sister, another two sisters were badly injured.
“I don’t know how I will be able to do anything, to continue at school,” he cried.
Forensic experts sifted through the debris in the park. The suicide bomb had been a crude devise loaded with ball bearings, designed to rip through the bodies of its victims to cause maximum damage, said counter-terrorism official Rana Tufail. He identified the suicide bomber as Mohammed Yusuf, saying he was known as a militant recruiter.
Malala Yousafzai, a young Nobel Peace Laureate and champion of girls’ education – herself a survivor of a horrific Taliban shooting – said she was “devastated by the senseless killing of innocent people in Lahore.”
“My heart goes out to the victims and their families and friends,” she said. “Every life is precious and must be respected and protected.”
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Lahore bombing, saying that in targeting a park filled with children, the attack “revealed the face of terror, which knows no limits and values.”
France expressed its “solidarity in these difficult moments” to the authorities and the people of Pakistan and underlined “the inflexible will of our country to continue to battle terrorism everywhere.”
Analyst and prominent author of books on militants in Pakistan, Zahid Hussain, said Sunday’s violence was a coordinated show of strength by the country’s religious extremists, angered over what they see as efforts to undermine their influence.
The military launched an all-out offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan in June 2014. The operation, called Zarb-e-Azb, has seen over 3,000 militants killed, according to the army. In December 2014 , the Taliban retaliated with one of the worst terror assaults in Pakistan, attacking a school in northwestern city of Peshawar and killing 150 people, mainly children.
Hussain said the government has been sending mixed signals to Islamic extremists – on the one hand allowing banned radical groups to operate unhindered under new names and radical leaders to openly give inciting speeches, while on the other hanging convicts like Qadri and promising to tackle honor killings and attacks against women.
“It is one step forward and two steps backward,” says Hussain. “The political leadership has to assert itself and say ‘no’ to extremism once and for all.”
Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif promised Pakistan “will never allow these savage non-humans to over run our life and liberty.”
The local Punjab government announced it will give roughly $3,000 compensation to the seriously wounded and $1,500 to those with minor injuries from Sunday’s bombing.
In Islamabad, extremists had marched into the city on Sunday in protest of the hanging of policeman Mumtaz Qadri in February. Qadri was convicted for the 2011 murder of governor Salman Taseer, who was defending a Christian woman jailed on blasphemy charges. Taseer had also criticized Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws and campaigned against them.
They rallied anew Monday, demanding that the Christian woman also be hanged and that authorities impose Islamic law or Sharia. The woman, Aasia Bibi, is still in jail facing blasphemy charges.
The army deployed Pakistan paramilitary Rangers as well as about 800 additional soldiers from neighboring Rawalpindi to Islamabad, to protect the center, which houses main government buildings and diplomatic missions.
In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, the Press Club was ransacked by pro-Qadri supporters on Sunday. Several Pakistani journalists were roughed up and some equipment was damaged. Extremists were regrouping in Karachi ahead of rallies Monday in the country’s financial center.