People carry an injured lawyer at the scene of a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan, on Aug. 8. (Jamal Taraqai/European Pressphoto Agency)

A gruesome suicide bombing at midday Monday left at least 70 people dead outside a hospital in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, most of them lawyers who had rushed there to protest and mourn the earlier killing of a local bar-association leader. 

The Khorasan branch of the Islamic State, a regional affiliate of the Mideast-based Sunni Islamist militant group, asserted responsibility for the blast in telephone calls to journalists in Pakistan. But a separate Pakistani militant splinter group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, issued an online statement claiming it had carried out the bombing.

Medical officials in Quetta said late Monday afternoon that about 70 people had died and that more than 100 others were wounded and receiving treatment. The death toll climbed throughout the day as critically wounded victims succumbed to their injuries.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army commander, flew to Quetta to visit hospitalized victims. The premier condemned the blast, expressing his “deep grief and anguish over the loss of precious human lives,” and said he planned to convene a special security meeting to address it.

The attack was the deadliest in the capital of violence-plagued Baluchistan province since 2013, when a string of bombings targeted the area’s Shiite Muslim and ethnic Hazara community. One bomb that detonated in a market that February killed at least 110 people.

Monday’s blast, in which officials said a bomber detonated a suicide vest, appeared to be timed to target the crowd of lawyers, journalists and other civilians who had gathered outside the casualty ward of the city’s Civil Hospital. They were waiting for the body of Bilal Anwar Kasi, head of the Baluchistan Bar Association, which had been brought for an autopsy after Kasi was shot dead on his way to court. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for his slaying.

“It seems it was a preplanned attack,” Anwar ul Haq Kakr, a spokesman for the local government, said of the hospital attack, according to the Reuters news agency.

The U.S. State Department condemned both of Monday’s attacks. “Today, terrorists targeted a hospital, as well as the judiciary and the media, two of the most important pillars of every democracy,” its statement said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also denounced the bombing. He said that the targeting of mourners at a civilian hospital was “particularly appalling.”

Television footage of the bomb scene showed horrific carnage, with burned and bloody bodies of black-suited lawyers flung across the hospital plaza, while police and emergency crews tried to help survivors. Several journalists were also among the dead.

The provincial government appealed to the public to donate blood, saying local medical facilities were overwhelmed and facing shortages.

The provincial chief minister, Sanaullah Zehri, vowed in a statement that “we will not let terrorists and their financiers play with the peace of our province.”

Zehri charged that India’s intelligence service has been behind the financing of terrorism in the troubled region. India and Pakistan are longtime adversaries.

However, the two militant groups that claimed to have carried out Monday’s bombing are both of Pakistani origin and were spawned in the tribal belt bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Khorasan group has official ties with the Islamic State, but the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar group has also reportedly claimed allegiance to it.

Baluchistan, a vast desert province that borders Afghanistan and Iran, has long been roiled by terrorism, political intrigue, a separatist insurgency and deadly tribal conflicts. It is home to a large number of Afghan refugees, and its capital has served as a base for Afghan Taliban leaders and a staging ground for the dispatch of arms and supplies across the border into Afghanistan.

The Khorasan group is composed mostly of former Pakistani Taliban fighters from the northwestern tribal areas who broke away from their original group after its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2013. They have mostly been battling Afghan military forces in eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of miles from Quetta. On July 23, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 80 people.

The Islamic State has increasingly resorted to bombings and other spectacular attacks as it has lost ground in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. 

Constable reported from Kabul.