Pakistanis hunt militants behind blast that killed at least 70

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Pakistan Hunts for Militants Behind Deadly Blast

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities on Monday hunted members of a Taliban faction which once declared loyalty to Islamic State after the group claimed responsibility for an Easter suicide bomb targeting Christians that killed at least 70 people.

The brutality of Sunday's attack by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the group'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.

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 big government crackdown on Islamist militancy.

Military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa said intelligence agencies, the army and paramilitary Rangers had launched several raids around Punjab following the attack.

"Number of suspect terrorists and facilitators arrested and huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered," he said in a tweet that gave no detail. He could not be reached for further comment.

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, calling for stronger intelligence coordination.

Jamaat-ul-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."

Lahore is the capital of Pakistan's richest province, Punjab, and is seen as the country's political and cultural heartland.

Markets, schools and courts in Lahore were closed on Monday as the city mourned.

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.

Aftermath of the deadly bombing in Pakistan:

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Pakistanis hunt militants behind blast that killed at least 70
Forensic officers look for evidence at the site of a blast that happened outside a public park on Sunday, in Lahore, Pakistan, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Family members mourn the death of a relative, who was killed in a blast that happened outside a public park on Sunday, in Lahore, Pakistan, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
A forensic officer looks for evidence at the site of a blast that happened outside a public park on Sunday, in Lahore, Pakistan, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Pakistani security officials collect evidence at the cordoned-off site of the March 27 suicide bombing, in Lahore on March 28, 2016. The toll from a suicide blast in Pakistan's Lahore rose to 69, officials said on March 28, as authorities hunted for the 'savage inhumans' behind the attack in a park packed with Christian families celebrating Easter Sunday. More than 200 people were injured, many of them children, when explosives packed with ball bearings ripped through crowds near a children's play area in the park in Lahore, leaving dozens dead or bloodied. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani relatives mourn over the body of a victim during a funeral following an overnight suicide bombing in Lahore on March 28, 2016. The toll from a suicide blast in Pakistan's Lahore rose to 69, officials said on March 28, as authorities hunted for the 'savage inhumans' behind the attack in a park packed with Christian families celebrating Easter Sunday. More than 200 people were injured, many of them children, when explosives packed with ball bearings ripped through crowds near a children's play area in the park in Lahore, leaving dozens dead or bloodied. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers use a stretcher to shift a body from a bomb blast site in Lahore on March 27, 2016. At least 25 people were killed and dozens injured when an explosion ripped through the parking lot of a crowded park where many minority Christians had gone to celebrate Easter Sunday in the Pakistani city Lahore, officials said. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani women mourn the death of relatives after a bomb blast in Lahore on March 27, 2016. At least 25 people were killed and dozens injured when an explosion ripped through the parking lot of a crowded park where many minority Christians had gone to celebrate Easter Sunday in the Pakistani city Lahore, officials said. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers carry a body in an ambulance from a bomb blast site in Lahore on March 27, 2016. At least 25 people were killed and dozens injured when an explosion ripped through the parking lot of a crowded park where many minority Christians had gone to celebrate Easter Sunday in the Pakistani city Lahore, officials said. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers and officials gather at a bomb blast site in Lahore on March 27, 2016. At least 25 people were killed and dozens injured when an explosion ripped through the parking lot of a crowded park where many minority Christians had gone to celebrate Easter Sunday in the Pakistani city Lahore, officials said. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Family members mourn the death of a relative, who was killed in a blast outside a public park on Sunday, during funeral in Lahore, Pakistan, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani forensics collect evidence at the site of a suicide bombing in Lahore, on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
LAHORE, PAKISTAN - MARCH 28: Pakistani commando stand guard at the suicide blast site in Lahore on March 28, 2016. At least 70 people, mostly women and children, have been killed at a crowded park in Pakistan in a suicide blast that also wounded more than 300 people. (Photo by Rana Irfan Ali /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Jamaat-ul-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 for the last 15 years, 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.

Nearly 80 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a church in the northwestern city of Peshawar in 2013.

Security forces have killed and arrested hundreds of suspected militants under the crackdown launched after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre.

Militant violence had eased but the 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.

However, the entrance of the separate Islamic State ideology from the Middle East - unlike the Taliban, Islamic State envisions a global caliphate and emphasizes killing Christians and minority Shi'a Muslims - has also raised worries it could intensify sectarian violence in Pakistan.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar in September 2014 swore allegiance to Islamic State, also known as Daesh.

"We respect them. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and decide," spokesman Ehsan told Reuters of Islamic State, while rejecting the main Pakistani Taliban leadership.

By March 2015, however, the group was again swearing fealty to the main Taliban umbrella leadership. The reason for its return to the fold remains murky.

In the Pakistani capital of Islamabad earlier on Sunday, hundreds of hard-line Muslim activists clashed with police in a protest over the execution of a man they consider a hero for assassinating a governor over his criticism of harsh blasphemy laws.

Bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer, a prominent liberal politician, had spoken in support of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the law that mandates capital punishment for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad. Qadri was executed last month.

There was no indication of a connection between the protest in Islamabad and the bomb in Lahore.

However, in March, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar spokesman Ehsan said another attack by the group - a suicide bombing that killed 10 at a court near Mohmand - was "especially done as vengeance for the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri".

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