A student injured in the shootout at Army Public School in Pakistan’s Peshawar is helped by a hospital security guard. (AP Photo)
At least 130 people, most of them children, were killed on Tuesday when about six Taliban gunmen stormed an army-run school in northwest Pakistan, in one of the bloodiest terror attacks in the country in years.
The bloody Taliban raid on the school in Peshawar ended after almost eight hours, police said, with all six attackers dead.
“The combat operation is over, the security personnel are carrying out clearance operation and hopefully they will clear the building in a while,” police official Abdullah Khan told AFP.
“Dead bodies of six terrorists have been found in the building.”
Senior police official Shafqat Malik confirmed the combat phase of the response had ended, while chief army spokesperson General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter that the operation was “closing up”.
Bajwa said explosive devices planted in school buildings by the militants were slowing clearance efforts. Special forces soldiers had rescued more than a dozen staff and students, he added.
The attack that also left more than 120 injured began around 11.30am (India time) after the group of militants entered the Army Public School when about 500 students and teachers were believed to be inside.
A student who managed to escape the carnage said, “An army doctor was teaching us about first aid when attackers came from behind our school and started firing.”
“Our teachers locked the door and we ducked on the floor, but they broke down the door. Initially they fired in the air and later started killing the students, but left the hall suddenly. The attackers had long beards, wore shalwar kameez and spoke Arabic.”
Another student who survived the attack said soldiers came to the rescue during a lull in the firing. “When we were coming out of the class we saw bodies of our friends lying in the corridors. They were bleeding. Some were shot three times, some four times.”
Hours into the siege, three explosions were heard inside the school, and heavy gunfire was heard as troops surrounded the building to rescue hundreds of students and staff taken hostage by the militants. According to the military, the bulk of the hostages have been evacuated.
An injured Pakistani student lies in bed at a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar. (AFP Photo)
The hard-line Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), fighting to topple the government and set up a strict Islamic state, claimed responsibility for the attack as retaliation for a major military offensive in pro-Taliban tribal strongholds of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani told AFP the six attackers “include target killers and suicide attackers”. “They have been ordered to shoot the older students but not the children.”
“It’s a revenge attack for the army offensive in North Waziristan,” he said, referring to the anti-Taliban military offensive that began in June.
“We selected the army school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
More than 1,600 militants have been killed since the launch of Zarb-e-Azb in June, according to data compiled by AFP from regular military statements.
A hospital, where the dead and wounded were rushed to after the attack on the school, said most of the victims were aged between 10 and 20.
It was not clear whether the children were killed by gunmen, suicide bombs or in the ensuing battle with Pakistani security forces trying to gain control of the building.
In September, 2013, dozens of people, including many children, were killed in an attack on a church, also in Peshawar, a sprawling and violent city near the Afghan border.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described Tuesday’s attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages”.
“These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss,” he said.
Pakistani soldiers transport rescued schoolchildren from the site of an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar. (AFP Photo)
As helicopters rumbled overhead, distraught parents thronged the Lady Reading Hospital, weeping uncontrollably as children’s bodies arrived, their school uniforms drenched in blood.
Irshadah Bibi, 40, whose 12-year-old son was among the dead, beat her face in grief, throwing herself against an ambulance. “What is the sin of my child and all these children?”
The school on Peshawar’s Warsak Road is for children of military personnel and civilians. Army wives often teach in them.
Former cricketer Imran Khan, who is now chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, condemned the attack. “There is no justification for this,” he said.
In New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the terror attack as a “senseless act of unspeakable brutality”.
Taliban opened fire on children
Mudassar Abbas, a physics laboratory assistant at the school, said some students were celebrating at a party when the attack began.
“I saw six or seven people walking class-to-class and opening fire on children,” he said. One student said soldiers came to the rescue them during a lull in the firing.
Pakistani soldiers take position near the site of an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar. (AFP Photo)
“When we were coming out of the class we saw dead bodies of our friends lying in the corridors. They were bleeding. Some were shot three times, some four times,” the student said.
“The men entered the rooms one by one and started indiscriminate firing at the staff and students. Several students escaped through the back gate. One of students who escaped told Dunya TV that fourth period was in progress when they heard firing.
“First we didn’t know what has happened. But later an army officer told us to escape through back gate,” he said.
Mushtaq Ghani, provincial information minister, said the militants entered through a graveyard which is adjacent to the school. The school is close to Saint Mary High School located at the start of Warsak Road which was also under threat for last couple of days.
The school is part of the Army Public Schools and Colleges System, which runs 146 schools nationwide for the children of military personnel and civilians. Its students are between the 10 and 18 years.
The schools educate the children of both officers and non-commissioned soldiers and army wives often teach in them.
Tuesday’s attack calls into question whether the militants have been crippled by the military or will be able to regroup. This appeared to be the worst attack in Pakistan since the 2008 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi killed 150 people.
The violence also underscored the vulnerability of Pakistani schools, which was dramatically exposed in the attack two years ago on Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl shot in the head by a Taliban gunman outside her school in Swat Valley for daring to speak up about girls’ rights. She survived, becoming a Nobel Prize laureate and global advocate for girls’ education but out of security concerns has never returned to Pakistan.
Militants have also blown up schools in the northwest.
“I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” said Malala in a statement. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters, but we will never be defeated.”