French President Francois Hollande on Sunday night expressed “France’s solidarity” with Pakistan, after a suicide bombing at a children’s park in Lahore killed 65 people and wounded more than 300 others.
The Easter Sunday attack took place near the children’s rides in Gulshan-e-Iqbal park, local police chief Haider Ashraf said. He said the explosion appeared to have been a suicide bombing, but investigations were ongoing. The park in the eastern city was crowded with Christians, including many children.
“Today’s attack in Lahore, Pakistan has claimed the lives of more than 60 victims and left many more injured,” Hollande said in a statement from the Elysée Palace. He cited his “iron will” to “continue fighting terrorism everywhere.”
France is still reeling from a spate of deadly terror attacks in its capital since January 2015.
A breakaway Pakistani faction of the militant Taliban group has claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack. Ahsanullah Ahsan, spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, told the Associated Press that a suicide bomber with the faction deliberately targeted the Christian community.
Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the state of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, announced three days of mourning and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice, said Zaeem Qadri, a spokesman for the provincial government.
The park was manned by police and private security guards, Ashraf said. “We are in a warlike situation and there is always a general threat but no specific threat alert was received for this place,” he added.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a meeting to assess the security situation in Lahore, according to a government statement. Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, also convened an emergency meeting of the country’s intelligence agencies to begin to track down those responsible for the attacks, said army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa.
Footage broadcast on local television stations in the aftermath of the blast showed chaotic scenes in the park, with people running while carrying children and cradling the wounded in their laps.
One witness, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Afzal, said he had taken 20 children to hospital and carried three dead bodies to a police car. “I can’t explain to you the tragic situation,” he said.
Witnesses described children screaming as people carried the injured in their arms, while frantic relatives searched for loved ones.
Javed Ali, a 35-year-old who lives opposite the park near the center of the city, said the force of the blast shattered the windows of his home.
“It was overcrowded because of Easter, there were a lot of Christians there. It was so crowded I told my family not to go,” he said.
— Raju Narisetti (@raju) March 27, 2016
Doctors described frenzied scenes at hospitals, with staff treating casualties on floors and in corridors, as officials tweeted calls for blood donations. Salman Rafiq, a health adviser to the Punjab government, said many of those wounded were in a critical condition.
Witnesses said the wounded were first rushed to hospital in rickshaws and other vehicles before dozens of ambulances arrived on the scene.
Lahore’s top administration official, Muhammad Usman, said more than 50 children were among the injured.
“The bomber managed to enter the park and blew himself up near the kids’ playing area where kids were on the swings,” he told AFP.
Facebook activated its safety check system, so people could tell friends and relatives they were safe, but a glitch meant notifications were sent to people all over the world.
The company later apologized, but some users said the error meant news of the attack spread more quickly than it might otherwise have done.
Prime Minister Sharif expressed his “grief and sorrow over the sad demise of innocent lives.”
His Indian counterpart Narendra Modi telephoned to say “the people of India stand with their Pakistani brethren in this hour of grief,” state media reported.
The US labelled the incident “cowardly,” while Pakistan’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai tweeted: “Pakistan and the world must unite. Every life is precious and must be respected and protected.”
“I’m shocked by the terrorist attack in Lahore,” British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims. We will do what we can to help.”
A Pakistani military spokesman said intelligence agencies were chasing all leads.
The Vatican condemned the attack, calling it “fanatical violence against Christian minorities,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for Islamabad to protect religious minorities.
Christians make up an estimated 1.6 percent of the Pakistan’s 200 million people, the vast majority of which are Muslim, and have long faced discrimination.
Twin suicide attacks against churches in Lahore killed 17 people in March last year, sparking two days of rioting by thousands of Christians.
Attacks targeting children have a special resonance in Pakistan, still scarred by a Taliban assault in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 150 people, mostly children.
A military operation targeting insurgents was stepped up in response, and last year the death toll from militant attacks fell to its lowest since the Pakistani Taliban were formed in 2007.
Lahore, capital of Punjab province, has been relatively peaceful in recent years, but the insurgents have demonstrated a chilling ability to continue attacks on soft targets.
In January, the Pakistani Taliban launched an assault on a university in Charsadda, near Peshawar, that left 21 dead and spurred a call to arm teachers.