LAHORE - At least 59 people were killed and 125 wounded at Wagah border crossing near Lahore Sunday evening when a suicide blast tore through spectators leaving after the colourful daily ceremony at the eastern frontier with India.

Several women, children and elderly were among the dead and injured, rescue workers said. The dead included three Pakistan Rangers personnel and 13 members of two families. There were fears the death toll could rise further as condition of over a dozen injured was very critical.

Although holy month of Muharram remains peaceful across the Punjab, yet the terrorists struck in Lahore just two days before Ashura, 10th of Muharram. With the onset of the holy month, a state of high-alert had already been declared across Punjab – which has been spared the worst of the bloody wave of violence the country has seen in recent years.

The flag ceremony at Wagah, the only land border crossing between Lahore and India’s Amritsar city, is daily attended by hundreds on both sides of the border and is overcrowded on Sunday evenings. The ceremony is the display of military pageantry that accompanies the formal closing of the border post.

The bomber targeted civilians who were leaving the parade venue after attending the flag-lowering ceremony at the border, police officers said. Punjab IGP Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera said that a 20-year-old male carried out the bombing. But, there was confusion as to who carried out the bombing as three different groups of militants claimed responsibility.

Thirteen people of two different families were among the dead. Eight members of a family who died in the terror strike were said to be from Samundari area of Faisalabad. Heart-rending scenes were witnessed at different public hospitals of Lahore where the dead and injured were brought.

Eyewitness said the blast took place just 10 minutes after the flag ceremony concluded. Apparently, the bomber detonated the explosive vest, wrapped to his chest, near the main gate when a great number of people were coming out.

“It was a huge, very powerful blast. It was like Karbala (episode happening there). It was like doomsday. I saw it with my eyes,” Asif Rashid told this reporter at Services Hospital. Asif, who sustained minor injuries on his foot, said he was there with his wife to enjoy the ceremony.

Another witness described the bombing as terrible and appalling. “I rushed to the scene and saw scattered bodies, human flesh, injured men, women and children on the road,” said the man, who would give just his surname – Khan.

After the blast emergency was declared at all public hospitals of the provincial metropolis. Initially, the injured were taken to Ghurki Trust Hospital from where they were moved to other hospitals after being provided first aid. “We received 35 bodies and 60 to 70 wounded,” said an official at Ghurki Hospital located near Wagah border crossing.

The emergency wards were seen packed to capacity. Most of the injured were shifted to Mayo and Services hospitals. The relatives of victims were seen desperately looking for their loved ones at the hospitals. They said authorities should have displayed lists of victims. In front of the hospital, volunteers were seen urging people to donate blood.

There are several security checkpoints on the road leading to the border post, which is equipped with a ceremonial gate and banked seating, and spectators are frisked before entering, though such searches are not always particularly rigorous.

Accounts differed as to whether the bomber struck at the gate or inside the parade venue. Punjab home minister told a news TV channel that the bomber managed to cross four security checkpoints. A police officer said the attacker approached the parade venue entrance and blew himself up among the crowd at around 6pm.

However, some security sources said a teenage boy blew himself up when Pakistani Rangers personnel stopped him at the enter point of border area complex. “The suicide bomber failed to cross the security barrier and blew himself up outside when people were coming out,” Pakistan Rangers (Punjab) DG Maj-Gen Tahir Javaid Khan told reporters.

“It was a suicide attack. The bomber had been waiting for the people outside the parade venue and he detonated his explosives minutes after the ceremony ended,” the Maj-Gen Tahir said. He added three Rangers personnel were martyred and five others wounded.

A bomb disposal squad officer said at least 7kg ‘very high quality’ explosive material was used in the bomb, which was packed with ball-bearings and iron shards to cause maximum destruction. “We have also collected some body parts suspected to be of the bomber,” security officials said.

Dozens of people use Wagah crossing to enter India and Pakistan every day. It is also a crucial trade facility, where truck-loads of goods coming from and going to India are loaded and unloaded. There had been intelligence reports that two bombers have entered Lahore. Three days ago, reports mentioned possibility of bombing at Wagah, sources said.

There were conflicting claims of responsibility for the attack. Abdullah Bahar, a spokesman for a TTP faction loyal to its dead chief Hakimullah Mehsud, said they carried it out to avenge Mehsud’s killing in a US drone strike last year. But Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction, which broke away from the TTP in September, rubbished the claim and said they were behind the blast. Ahrar spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said it was revenge for military operation in North Waziristan. He said they would soon release video footage of the attack. TV channels also ran claims from Jundullah group.