By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE, Pakistan, March 28 – Pakistan will launch a paramilitary crackdown on Islamist militants in Punjab, the country’s richest and most populous province, after an Easter Day bombing killed 70 people in the provincial capital Lahore, officials said on Monday.
Sunday’s suicide bombing on a public park was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban’s Jamaat-ur-Ahrar faction, which once declared loyalty to Daesh The group said it was targeting Christians.
The brutality of the attack, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar’s fifth bombing since December, reflects the movement’s attempts to raise its profile among Pakistan’s increasingly fractured Islamist militants.
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.
At the Vatican in Rome, Pope Francis condemned the attack as “hideous” and demanded that Pakistani authorities protect religious minorities.
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 government crackdown on Islamist militancy.
Security and government officials told Reuters that the decision had been made to launch a full-scale paramilitary Rangers operation, giving them powers to conduct raids and interrogate suspects in the same way as they have been in the southern city of Karachi for more than two years.
The move, which has not yet been formally announced, represents the civilian government once again granting special powers to the military in order to fight Islamist militants.
“The technicalities are yet to be worked out. There are some legal issues also with bringing in Rangers, but the military and government are on the same page,” said one senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to share details of the plan.
One other military official and two government officials confirmed the decision on condition of anonymity.
Military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa said intelligence agencies, the army and Rangers had already launched several raids around Punjab following the attack, arresting an unspecified number of suspects and recovering arms caches.
Prime Minister Sharif toured hospitals full of victims, promising to bring justice.
“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.
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.”
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 since it joined a U.S.-led campaign against Islamist militancy after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda 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.
Security forces have killed and arrested hundreds of suspected militants under an earlier crackdown launched after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. Militant violence eased, but 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.