Fifteen people were killed and nearly 80 more injured when two powerful blasts, believed to have been triggered by Taliban suicide bombers, ripped through a Christian neighbourhood in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday. The explosions also triggered violence in the area.
The Jamaat-al-Ahrar, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted the Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church in Youhanabad area at about 11.30am.
The blasts caused widespread panic and anger in the area, which is home to tens of thousands of Christians. A mob caught two men suspected of being involved in the attack and lynched them before setting their bodies on fire, police said.Television footage showed dozens of stick-wielding men, mostly belonging to the Christian community, ransacking the metro bus terminal in the city, Dawn online reported.
Pakistani Christians protest against the suicide bombing attack on two churches in Lahore. (AP Photo)
Enraged protestors held four injured policemen captive at a shop after the blast for allegedly watching a cricket match instead of performing their duties at the time of the bomb attack.
This was the deadliest terror attack on Pakistan's Christian minority since September 2013, when two suicide bombers struck the All Saint's Church in Peshawar, killing 127 people and injuring more than 250. The minority has for long been the target of terrorist attacks and hate crimes.
In a message sent to the media, Jamaat-al-Ahrar spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan said suicide bombers from the "Aafia Siddiqui Brigade" carried out the blasts. Siddiqui is a Pakistani scientist serving an 86-year prison term in the US after being convicted of terror charges.
"We have carried out the attack…We have reached Lahore, the center of Punjab province, which is a challenge and a warning to the rulers," Ehsan was quoted as saying by The Express Tribune.
At the time of the blasts, the two churches located close to each other were packed with worshippers for the Sunday service. The second blast went off about five minutes after the first one. People ran out of the churches in fear.
Local residents told the media one suicide attacker blew himself up outside the Catholic Church when he was stopped by a security guard. The residents claimed both blasts were carried out by suicide attackers though there was no official word on this.
"I was sitting at a shop near the church when a blast jolted the area. I rushed towards the spot and saw the security guard scuffle with a man who was trying to enter the church. After failing, he blew himself up," witness Amir Masih told Reuters.
"I saw his body parts flying through the air."
Officials at Lahore's General Hospital told reporters that 15 people were killed and 78 others injured. Two policemen were among the dead. Officials said they feared the death toll could rise as the condition of 30 injured people was critical.
Christian leaders told the media the casualties would have been higher if the attackers had entered the churches. They said the doors of the churches were always shut during the Sunday service and this had helped protect the people.
Youhanabad is Pakistan's largest Christian neighbourhood and is home to about 200,000 people. The blasts triggered anger among local residents, who protested against the government's failure to provide adequate security to the area and the churches.
Christians also protested at several places in Lahore and in other cities, including Nankana Sahib, Multan, Peshawar and the southern port city of Karachi.
Lahore is the capital of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and the stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party. The city is generally considered peaceful but it has witnessed several brazen terror attacks, including some that targeted the armed forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.