ISLAMABAD, March 29, (Agencies): Pakistani authorities detained more than 5,000 suspects, then released most of them, in the two days since a suicide bomber hit a park in the eastern city of Lahore at Easter, killing at least 70 people, a provincial minister said on Tuesday. Investigators were keeping 216 suspects in custody pending further investigation, said Rana Sanaullah, a state minister for Punjab province from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling party.
“After further investigation we will know more about them,” he said. “…If someone is found to be guilty they will be charged.” Details of the sweeping raids — aimed at anyone suspected of Islamist extremism — came as the Taleban faction claiming responsibility for the attack issued a new threat on Tuesday, singling out the media. “Everyone will get their turn in this war, especially the slave Pakistani media,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, tweeted. “We are just waiting for the appropriate time.”
The Easter bombing was Pakistan’s deadliest attack since a 2014 school massacre claimed by the Taleban killed 134 students. Sunday’s attack, which included 29 children among the dead, showed the militants can still cause carnage despite military raids on their northwestern strongholds. “Let Nawaz Sharif know that this war has now come to the threshold of his home,” tweeted Ehsan.
“The winners of this war will, God willing, be the righteous mujahideen.” Lahore is the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province and Sharif’s political heartland. Sanaullah said at least 160 raids were carried out by a mixture of police, counter-terrorism and intelligence agents and confirmed that army and paramilitary forces would be used in future operations.
“This operation will include all law enforcement agencies,” Sanaullah said. Military and government officials on Monday said that the military was preparing to launch a new paramilitary counterterrorism crackdown in Punjab. The move, which has not yet been formally announced, represents the civilian government once again granting special powers to the military to fight Islamist militants.
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, which also previously declared loyalty to Islamic State, has carried out five major attacks in Pakistan since December. The government also announced that Sharif would be cancelling a planned trip to the United States to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, due to begin on Thursday. Pakistan’s security agencies have long been accused of nurturing some Islamist militants to use for help in pursuing objectives in Afghanistan and against old rival India. In recent years, Pakistan has cracked down on movements that target its own citizens and institutions, including the Pakistani Taleban who are fighting to topple the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Meanwhile, the militants behind the attack taunted the prime minister. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his powerful military chief have both vowed to bring those behind the attack to justice.
“Terrorists cannot dent our resolve. Our struggle will continue until the complete elimination of the menace of terrorism,” the premier said Monday after visiting victims in the provincial capital, a stronghold of his ruling Pakistan Muslim League. Kashir Nawab, a 32-year-old Christian from the Youhanabad district of Lahore, said a “pall of gloom” hung over the area as mourners visited the homes of those lost in the blast. Nawab said he was working to help arrange funeral services. “Everybody is frightened and the Christians particularly feel unprotected,” he said. The attack was the worst so far this year in a country grimly accustomed to atrocities, and will further fray interreligious ties. In related news, hundreds of Islamic extremists resumed protests in Pakistan’s capital on Tuesday over the execution of a man who killed a secular governor, in a show of defiance amid a government crackdown following a suicide attack two days earlier. The rally by Pakistan’s Sunni Tehreek group brought more than 10,000 protesters into the streets of Islamabad on Sunday, where they clashed with police.
On Tuesday, local police official Mohammad Kashif said some 700 remained, bringing parts of the capital to a standstill. The protesters are demanding strict Shariah law after the hanging of police officer Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Gov. Salman Taseer in 2011 over his opposition to the country’s far-ranging blasphemy laws. The protesters are also demanding the hanging of a Christian woman Taseer had defended against blasphemy allegations. In related development, Pakistan’s first Academy award winner, director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, has paid tribute to victims of the Easter bombing in the eastern city of Lahore with a short film posted to her Facebook page. The 1.5-minute film titled “An Ode to Lahore, the Beautiful City” opens with a shot of the famous Badshahi mosque before showing images from the popular park where a Taleban suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack targeting Christians on Easter Sunday. Chinoy, a journalist, filmmaker and activist, has won two Academy Awards for the documentaries Saving Face (2012) and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2015).