LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan’s security forces continued a major offensive Tuesday against suspected Islamist terrorists in the eastern province where a suicide bomber killed more than 70 people on Easter, as protesters who support the country’s strict blasphemy laws faced off with police in the country’s capital.
Both developments, though unlinked, highlight the enduring sectarian conflicts that have riven Pakistan, a tension that pervades much of public life here.
Officials in Punjab province, where Sunday’s attack occurred, said Tuesday that a joint military and police operation had conducted raids since Sunday evening and arrested more than 200 suspected militants. They said they would continue monitoring thousands of religious schools in the region for suspicious activity.
“Action would be taken wherever we found the sleeper cells of terrorists. Terrorists will be eliminated from the Pakistani soil,” Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, the spokesman for the armed forces, said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, in the capital, Islamabad, more than 1,000 protesters seeking a more purely fundamentalist Islamic nation continued to face off with police and security forces in the “Red Zone,” the official area that includes the country’s Parliament and other government buildings. More than 10,000 protesters had marched into the capital on Sunday, torching cars and buildings along the way.
The group is protesting February’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who shot and killed a moderate governor in 2011 because the politician had criticized the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which allow for those who criticize Islam to be sentenced to death. Qadri was praised by some fundamentalists as a hero for his actions.
On Tuesday, about 1,400 protesters were massed near the Parliament and vowed they would stay until their voices are heard. Authorities had given them a two-hour deadline to disperse Tuesday evening, but the country’s interior minister later said that if a peaceful compromise couldn’t be reached, police would remove the protesters from the area Wednesday.
Demonstrators are demanding that Qadri be declared a martyr and his jail cell a shrine, that Islamic law be imposed, and that non-Muslims and minorities be removed from key government posts.
“I have come for the imposition of the Islamic system in the country,” said protester Muhammad Jameel, 43, a shopkeeper from Jhelum. “Protest is our right and no law forbids it, and we will continue with our protest as long as our demands are not met.”
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defense consultant, said that the country’s religious right is trying to assert its political clout out of fear that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been influenced by secularists and that it has lost the active support of the military.
“On the one hand, they are opposed to the Taliban and support military action against them. On the other hand, they view Mumtaz Qadri as a hero, although he killed an eminent person,” he said. “These groups may not engage in suicide bombings or the Taliban-type attacks, but they can be violent to serve their religious cause.”
Eventually the military was brought in to contain the protest site.
The two ongoing national events have no causal link, an editorial in the country’s English-language Dawn newspaper noted Tuesday, but “both are emblematic about just how broken parts of the state of Pakistan are.”
“The perpetrators are all around us, hiding in plain view,” the editorial stated.
Pakistan has been plagued by large-scale terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, and a series of governments have been criticized for not doing enough to address the root causes of violent extremism in the country.
A major assault by Pakistan’s military following school shootings in 2014 that left more than 150 dead largely cleared extremists from federally administered tribal areas in the country’s northwest, analysts say. But other terrorist groups, including those in Punjab — a stronghold of Sharif — operate virtually unchecked.
“The big military operation is not enough,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and author of the book “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.”
“They have to go after jihadis all over the country. Any exception will come back to haunt them,” he said.
Life in Lahore, the country’s cultural hub and second-largest city, began returning to normal Tuesday, as schools and markets that had closed after the bombing reopened.
The hard-line Taliban faction that claimed responsibility for the Easter attack in Lahore released a photo of the alleged suicide bomber.
The bomber, a man identified by the terrorist group Jamaat ul-Ahrar as Salahuddin Khorasani, donned a vest loaded with explosives and ball bearings and blew himself up near a child’s amusement park crowded with people Sunday evening, killing at least 70, including 30 children.
The group later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had targeted Christians — though in the end, far more Muslims died.
The terrorist group, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, issued a statement saying that Khorasani “has carried out the attack on the eve of Christian festival Easter on March 27, 2016 as per his will. He has gifted his life to Allah.”
Police said Tuesday they are awaiting the results of DNA tests to officially identify the suicide bomber.
Hussain reported from Islamabad. Haq Nawaz in Peshawar and Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed to this report.