pakistan suicide bomb lahore.jpg
Photograph: EPA/RAHAT DAR

Pakistani forces on Monday launched a crackdown on Islamist extremists in the central province of Punjab as part of the hunt for those responsible for the deadly Taliban attack on Christians celebrating Easter, officials said.

Several raids were conducted and a number of suspects were arrested across major cities in the country's most populous province, army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said.

On Sunday evening a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest among a crowd inside a public park in the eastern city of Lahore, killing 72 people, local official Mohamed Usman said.

Around 350 people were injured, said Deeba Shahnaz Akhtar, a spokeswoman for the rescue services. It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan this year.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying members of the Christian community were their target.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday visited injured people being treated at a hospital, his office said.

He ordered law enforcement agencies to speed up the offensive against the Islamist militants, who are linked with the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

“I want more proactive coordination between law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” he said at a meeting. “The terrorists have assassinated our children - sons and daughters - and God willing, we will wipe them out from this country.”

Army chief Raheel Sharif said overnight the military would step up an offensive against the Islamist militants.

The Pakistan army has been engaged in fierce air and ground operations against the Taliban in the country’s north-western tribal frontiers on the Afghan border since June 2014.

More than 3,500 of the militants have so far been killed in the months of campaign, according to the military, but their ability to launch massive attacks seems intact.

Security analysts said the militants were now choosing “soft, easy-to-hit” targets, which shows their declining strength.

“This is clearly desperation. ... They want to show their presence by bombing public places,” said analyst Mahmoud Shah, a former military brigadier.

Markets were shut and traffic was thin on the roads across the province. National flags was flying at half-mast as a three-day official state of mourning for the victims began Monday.

Funerals for some of the victims were held and more were scheduled for Tuesday.

At least 35 children were among the dead, local police official Nasrullah Chatha said. Some 15 members of the Christian community died in the blast.

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