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Group Claims Responsibility For Pakistan Attack; Targeted Christians


We turn now to Pakistan and the city of Lahore, where at least 70 people - many of them children - were killed there by a suicide bomber yesterday afternoon. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility. It says its target was Christians celebrating Easter Sunday, though many Muslims were among the victims. And we're joined for more from Lahore by NPR's Philip Reeves. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, Phil, we're still trying to get a sense of what happened. Tell us some more of the details that you know at this point.

REEVES: Well, this happened in a public park early evening on a warm Sunday. I've been to visit the scene, and I was allowed to pass police lines, so I was able to get a close-up view, and this is what I saw.

I'm standing just a few meters away from where the bomb went off. Right behind me are the big, iron, green ornate gates of this park. This park, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, is in a residential part of Lahore. About 50 meters away, there's a crowd of people, mostly men, behind police lines, who have come here just to watch the scene. This attack was against a fun fair. I'm looking at a merry-go-round and, behind that, another merry-go-round and lots of other fairground fixtures, brightly colored in yellows, reds and blues, which are here for families of this city to bring their kids to enjoy. And that's evidently what people were doing yesterday afternoon when the bombers struck. I'm joined here by 25-year-old Sajid Ali (ph), a professional cook, and he was very close when the bomb went off. Mr. Ali, tell me, what did you see? What did you hear?

SAJID ALI: (Through interpreter) I was sitting outside the canteen in the park, and suddenly I heard the explosion, and I got frightened. And when I got nearer, I could see a lot of injured people, and my friends and I started rescuing those injured. And after half an hour, police and rescue teams started arriving.

REEVES: How big was the blast?

ALI: (Through interpreter) It was so big that the plumes of smoke were rising about these trees.

REEVES: How did people react?

ALI: (Through interpreter) People were rushing towards the main gate, and some of the people were trying to climb the vault to escape this devastating attack.

REEVES: It's been said that many of those who came here yesterday were from this city's Christian minority community, who'd come because it was Easter Sunday. This city is continuing to go about its business. However, it is more subdued than normal. The authorities have declared three days of mourning, so that means many shops and businesses are closed. We've come along to the Sheikh Zayed hospital in Lahore. It's the nearest hospital to the park where the bomb went off, so a number of the injured were brought here immediately afterwards. The hospital authorities have pinned up a list of those being treated inside for their injuries. It gives their names and their age and their gender, and it's quite revealing. There's a five-year-old girl, a seven-year-old boy, an 11-year-old boy, a 2-year-old boy. There are 14 kids on this list who are being treated for injuries, and this is just one of the city's hospitals, so it's very clear that children have been particularly hard-hit in this attack.

MONTAGNE: And Phil, let me just ask you here - Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. How many Christians are there?

REEVES: Well, they form a very small minority of Pakistan's 200 million or so population, but they have been targeted over the years for attacks. In 2013, for example, in Peshawar, 80 people were killed in a church bombing. And a year ago, right here in Lahore, more than 20 people died when two churches were bombed. I spoke with Joseph Francis, who's a leading representative of the city's Christian community. Francis says it's not clear how many Christians were among the hundreds of dead or injured in yesterday's attack, but he's in no doubt this was an attack on Christians. He was at home when he heard about the bombing.

JOSEPH FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) We were sitting in front of the television and thanking God that the day had passed by peacefully, and suddenly we heard about this news. At once, it came - it occurred to my mind it must have been an attack on Christians. Anybody who happens to see these scenes, he must get furious, no matter whether he's Hindu, Muslim, Christians.

REEVES: Now, since mid-2014, Pakistan's armed forces have been carrying out a major and almost completely unreported war against Islamist militants. The focus of this is the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, although the security forces also carried out a big crackdown in the city of Karachi. And this gained momentum after the Taliban bombed a school and slaughtered more than 130 boys. The army operation has meant that militant attacks have gone down in number. And the public mood also changed, says Ammar Jan, a university lecturer who is from Lahore.

AMMAR JAN: There was this feeling that perhaps suicide bombings would become a thing of the past, but I think it's hit us home last night that the war is very much an ongoing effort. And who knows whether we're winning or losing this war?

REEVES: Is it your sense then, or is it the sense of people here that the Pakistani Army's efforts to crush the Taliban and other militant groups have failed?

JAN: Well, for the past year and a half, there's been very little public debate on the military operation. There's been a lot of outpouring of support for the military, but now serious questions are being asked. Clearly it's a taboo topic to criticize the military right now, but we need results. Right now, unfortunately, because of the censorship created by the war, there's very little public discussion, but that does not mean there's not a lot of anger amongst the public.

REEVES: So, Renee, you can see that the mood here is grim.

MONTAGNE: And that's NPR's Phil Reeves reporting from Lahore, Pakistan. Phil, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.