The death toll from Sunday’s bomb attack near the entrance to a children’s park in the Pakistani city of Lahore rose to 70 on Monday, with many of the roughly 200 injured in critical condition.

The bombing was one of the biggest in Pakistan since Islamists slaughtered more than 100 children at a massacre in an army school in 2014.

Sunday’s bombing was timed to coincide with the evening holiday rush at the park, among the most popular family recreation areas in Lahore. Many of the dead and injured were women and children

Pakistan’s army and intelligence services late on Sunday raided a village in the southern part of Punjab province in search of the family behind the suicide attack.

“Several members of the suicide bombers’ family are in custody,” said a government official. “The search is focused mainly on trying to find the facilitators. One man carried out the bombing but there must been others behind him.”

A senior police officer in Lahore who spoke to the Financial Times said the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack and had threatened to carry out more. “The risk of more Taliban attacks remains very high,” he said.

Pakistani media have speculated that members of Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority, celebrating the Easter holiday at the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park, may have been the target.

Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province, home to more than 60 per cent of the population. As the political base of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who still operates out of his sprawling house in a Lahore suburb, the city is typically seen as one of Pakistan’s safest, relatively insulated from such attacks.

“I don’t remember so many casualties in a single terrorist attack in Lahore,” a senior police office in the city told the FT.

John Kirby, a US state department spokesman, condemned the terrorist attack.

“Attacks like these only deepen our shared resolve to defeat terrorism around the world, and we will continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region to combat the threat of terrorism,” he said.

The attack prompted renewed debate over Pakistan’s policy towards hardline Islamist groups, which authorities have traditionally deemed useful assets in regional power politics.

Politicians on Monday said the bombing had increased the likelihood of the army stepping in to launch an anti-terrorist campaign in Punjab.

“In the past, the prime minister has been hesitant in the Punjab. But now, his position has been weakened,” said a politician from the ruling PML-N party.

Security forces have cracked down on militant groups in some regions since the army school massacre galvanised public opinion. But analysts say authorities have yet to confront similar militant groups based in Punjab, where Mr Sharif derives much of his political support.

“As long as you don’t act against militants in the Punjab, you will remain vulnerable as a country,” said Ikram Seghal, a defence and security commentator. “There are well-entrenched militant outfits in the Punjab and there are indications of politicians in the province being sympathetic to them. This complacency must end now.”

A western diplomat in Islamabad also suggested that Pakistani authorities had turned a blind eye to hardline groups, now coming back to haunt the country. “There has to be a very major attack on militant groups in the Punjab,” he said.

Despite the bloodshed caused by militants, Islamist sentiment also runs high in Pakistan. Last month, thousands of people came out to pay their respects at the funeral of a man executed for assassinating a former governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer.

Taseer had enraged Islamists by calling for a pardon for a Christian woman found guilty of blasphemy under strict laws forbidding any insult to Islam and calling for reform of the blasphemy laws. His assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was a policeman assigned as Taseer’s bodyguard.

On Sunday night in Islamabad the army was called to disperse thousands of Qadri supporters after they clashed with riot police near the main avenue leading to the national parliament.

Letter in response to this article:

Persecution of Pakistan’s minorities began in 1947 / From Randhir Singh Bains

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