ISLAMABAD - Authorities in Pakistan have detained more than 200 suspected Islamist militants in a major crackdown in connection with Sunday's suicide bombing in Lahore that killed at least 72 people, many of them Christians celebrating Easter.
The deadly attack occurred at a crowded public park in the capital of the country’s most populous province of Punjab. Twenty-nine children were among the dead while more than 300 other people were wounded.
Provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters Tuesday that police and special counter-terrorism units, led by intelligence agents, have conducted scores of raids across Punjab and rounded up more than 5,000 people.
Investigators later released all but 216 people who are undergoing further investigation, he said, adding the crackdown is continuing with a determination to bring the perpetrators of the Lahore carnage to justice.
In a separate news conference in Islamabad, Pakistani military spokesman Lt. General Asim Bajwa said that intelligence agencies along with regular and paramilitary troops are also carrying out operations against suspected “sleeper cells” and “terrorist hideouts” in several cities of Punjab.
Jamaatul Ahrar, claimed responsibility
A breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaatul Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the bombing, saying it was intentionally aimed at the Christians.
The group’s spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, vowed to carry out more such attacks in Punjab, prompting authorities to temporarily close all public parks across the province. In his latest message, the spokesman also threatened to attack local media.
"Everyone will get their turn in this war, especially the slave Pakistani media…We are just waiting for the appropriate time,” the spokesman said in a Twitter post.
The Easter Sunday bombing was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since a December 2014 militant raid on a school in Peshawar that killed nearly 150 people, mostly children.
Punjab is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political power base, where 60 percent of Pakistan's 190 million people are located.
The Pakistani Taliban and its affiliated militant outfits have been waging an insurgency against the state for more than a decade, killing tens of thousands of people.
Vow to punish those responsible
In a televised national address Monday night, Prime Minister Sharif vowed to intensify counter-terrorism and anti-extremism operations in the country to punish those responsible for killing innocent Pakistanis.
“We are keeping count of every drop of blood of our martyrs. This account is being settled, and we will not rest until it is paid," he said.
A major military-led ground and air counter-insurgency operation has been under way in semi-autonomous tribal areas near the Afghan border since 2014. The region is known to have harbored local and foreign militants for years.
Officials insist that the operation has significantly reduced militant violence across the country, describing recent attacks on "soft targets" like public places an act of desperation by the militants.
In the wake of the Lahore bombing, Sharif canceled a planned to trip to the United States, where he was to attend a nuclear security summit starting on Thursday.