Easter nightmare in Pakistan

First off, Happy Easter to those who are celebrating it today (Orthodox Christians won’t celebrate it until May 1).

Unfortunately, Easter Sunday has been turned into a horror story for people living in the Pakistani city of Lahore:

A suicide bomber killed at least 65 people and injured more than 280 others, mostly women and children, at a public park in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, striking at the heart of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political base of Punjab.

The blast occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, a few feet (meters) away from children’s swings.

I’m seeing reports on Twitter that the death toll has climbed past 70, and you can probably expect it to keep rising for the next few hours. As you might expect given where the explosion happened, most of the dead are reportedly women and children. It’s very possible (likely?), though there’s no real way to confirm this unless and until some group takes credit for the attack and explains its motive, that the bombing intentionally targeted Christians in the park celebrating the holiday.

As I say, there has not yet been a claim of responsibility. The alleged bomber hails from Muzaffargarh, a district in the southern part of Punjab, but that doesn’t say much about his allegiances. The nature of the target would certainly fit the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), who have shown in the past that they’re more than happy to get their rocks off by slaughtering children. The Punjab region, where Lahore is located, isn’t the TTP’s typical stomping ground, but they did carry out an attack in Lahore–one that targeted the city’s Christian population, no less–just last year. However, a 2013 bombing in Lahore was claimed by a Balochi separatist group, the Baloch Liberation Tigers, and Pakistan has no shortage of terrorist groups operating on its soil (many with the tacit or not so tacit help of Pakistan’s intelligence services), so it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.

On a possibly related note, Pakistani authorities are also dealing with a major protest taking place in Islamabad, denouncing the execution of Mumtaz Qadri late last month. Qadri assassinated the then-governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011, after Taseer spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy law (which ostensibly prohibits speaking out against all religions but is almost always enforced against non-Muslims who allegedly defame Islam in some way). Taseer was particularly outspoken about the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to execution in 2010 for supposedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad (she remains in prison while her case is being processed). Qadri was a police officer and part of Taseer’s bodyguard at the time. Given the Punjabi and Muslim-Christian overtones inherent to Qadri’s case, I think it would be premature to rule out a connection between his execution and the Lahore bombing, whether or not the bombing was carried out by the TTP.

UPDATE: A splinter-ish faction of the TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the bombing and said they were indeed targeting Christians. It was believed back in 2014 that this group had pledged allegiance to ISIS, but they announced about a year ago that they’d only expressed support for ISIS and were actually coming back into the TTP fold. They were likely also trying to send a message to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is from Lahore and has emphasized security in Punjab (to such an extent that he’s been criticized for easing up in other parts of the country). For a TTP faction (and/or ISIS affiliate, I guess) to pull off an attack in Lahore is a pretty direct challenge to Sharif’s government.

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