In the deadliest slaughter of innocents in Pakistan in years, Taliban gunmen attacked a military-run school Tuesday and killed 141 people – almost all of them students – before government troops ended the siege.
The massacre of innocent children horrified a country already weary of unending terrorist attacks. Pakistan’s teenage Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai – herself a survivor of a Taliban shooting – said she was ”heartbroken” by the bloodshed.
Even Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan decried the killing spree, calling it ”un-Islamic.”
If the Pakistani Taliban extremists had hoped the attack would cause the government to ease off its military offensive that began in June in the country’s tribal region, it appeared to have the opposite effect. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to step up the campaign that – along with U.S. drone strikes – has targeted the militants.
”The fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it,” Sharif said. ”We will take account of each and every drop of our children’s blood.”
Taliban fighters have struggled to maintain their potency in the face of the military operation. They vowed a wave of violence in response to the operation, but until Tuesday, there has only been one major attack by a splinter group near the Pakistan-India border in November. Analysts said the school siege showed that even diminished, the militant group still could inflict horrific carnage.
The rampage at the Army Public School and College began in the morning when seven militants scaled a back wall using a ladder, said Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a military spokesman. When they reached an auditorium where students had gathered for an event, they opened fire.
A 14-year-old, Mehran Khan, said about 400 students were in the hall when the gunmen broke through the doors and started shooting. They shot one of the teachers in the head and then set her on fire and shouted ”God is great!” as she screamed, added Khan, who survived by playing dead.
From there, they went to classrooms and other parts of the school.
”Their sole purpose, it seems, was to kill those innocent kids. That’s what they did,” Bajwa said. Of the 141 people slain before government troops ended the assault eight hours later, 132 were children and nine were staff members. Another 121 students and three staff members were wounded.
The seven attackers, wearing vests of explosives, all died in the eight-hour assault. It was not immediately clear if they were all killed by the soldiers or whether they blew themselves up, he said.
The wounded – some still wearing their green school blazers – flooded into hospitals as terrified parents searched for their children. By evening, funeral services were already being held for many of the victims as clerics announced the deaths over mosque loudspeakers.
The government declared three days of mourning for what appeared to be Pakistan’s deadliest since a 2007 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi killed 150 people.
”My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” wailed one parent, Tahir Ali, as he came to the hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old son, Abdullah. ”My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”
One of the wounded students, Abdullah Jamal, said he was with a group of eighth, ninth and 10th graders who were getting first-aid instructions and training with a team of army medics when the violence became real. Panic broke out when the shooting began.
”I saw children falling down who were crying and screaming. I also fell down. I learned later that I have got a bullet,” he said, speaking from his hospital bed.
Another student, Amir Mateen, said they locked the door from the inside when they heard the shooting, but gunmen blasted through anyway and opened fire.
Responding to the attack, armored personnel carriers were deployed around the school, and a military helicopter circled overhead.
A little more than 1,000 students and staff were registered at the school, which is part of a network run by the military, although the surrounding area is not heavily fortified. The student body is made up of both children of military personnel as well as civilians.
Most of the students appeared to be civilians rather than children of army staff, said Javed Khan, a government official. Analysts said the militants likely targeted the school because of its military connections.
”It’s a kind of a message that `we can also kill your children,”’ said Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain.
In a statement to reporters, Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retribution for the military’s operation in nearby North Waziristan, the northwestern tribal region where the group’s fighters largely have been based.
”We targeted their kids so that they could know how it feels when they hit our kids,” Khurasani said. He said the attackers were advised not to target ”underage” children but did not elaborate on what that meant.
In its offensive, the military said it would go after all militant groups operating in the region. Security officials and civilians feared retribution by militants, but Pakistan has been relatively calm.
The attack raised the issue of whether this was the last gasp of a militant group crippled by a government offensive or whether the militants could regroup.
Hussain, the Pakistani analyst, called the attack an ”act of desperation.”
The violence will throw public support behind the campaign in North Waziristan, he said. It also shows that the Pakistani Taliban still maintains a strong intelligence network and remains a threat.
The attack drew swift condemnation from around the world. U.S. President Barack Obama said the ”terrorists have once again showed their depravity.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry added: ”The images are absolutely gut-wrenching: young children carried away in ambulances, a teacher burned alive in front of the students, a house of learning turned into a house of unspeakable horror.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Pakistan’s longtime regional rival, called it ”a senseless act of unspeakable brutality.”
India stands firmly with Pakistan in fight against terror. Told PM Sharif we are ready to provide all assistance during this hour of grief.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 16, 2014
”My heart goes out to everyone who lost their loved ones today. We share their pain & offer our deepest condolences,” Modi said in a series of tweeted statements.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was a ”an act of horror and rank cowardice to attack defenseless children while they learn.”
The violence recalled the attack on Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman outside her school in the Swat Valley for daring to speak up about girls’ rights. She survived to become a global advocate for girls’ education and received her Nobel Peace Prize last week, but has not returned to Pakistan in the two years since the shooting out of security concerns.
”Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this,” the 17-year-old said. ”I condemn these atrocious and cowardly acts.”
Quotes reacting to Pakistan attacks
“I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us. Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this. I condemn these atrocious and cowardly acts and stand united with the government and armed forces of Pakistan whose efforts so far to address this horrific event are commendable. I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated,” Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai.
”The government together with the army has started Zarb-e-Azb and it will continue until the terrorism is rooted out from our land. We also have had discussions with Afghanistan that they and we together fight this terrorism, and this fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it.” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking from Peshawar. Zarb-e-Azb is the name of the Pakistani military operation being carried out in North Waziristan.
”The United States strongly condemns senseless and inhumane attacks on innocent students and educators, and stands in solidarity with the people of Pakistan, and all who fight the menace of terrorism. Few have suffered more at the hands of terrorists and extremists than the people of Pakistan,” U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson said in a statement.
”The killing of innocent children is contrary to Islam,” Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement.
”I condemn this criminal attack in the sharpest possible terms. The cruel cowardice of taking children hostage and murdering them surpasses everything that Pakistan, which has been subjected to terrorism and violence for years, has known to date,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement.
Attack in Pakistan a chilling reminder of Russia’s Beslan school siege
Taliban attackers’ brazen assault on a school in Pakistan’s Peshawar city that claimed the lives of over 150 students today has brought back chilling memories of a similar bloodbath in Russia in 2004 when Chechen rebels stormed a school.
A group of suicide attackers wearing paramilitary Frontier Corps uniforms entered Army Public School on Warsak Road, Peshawar, around 10.30 (local time) and started indiscriminate firing.
The militants went from classroom-to-classroom shooting indiscriminately at the shocked students. Also at least one militant blew himself up inside the building.
The assault immediately brought back memories of the Beslan school hostage crisis in which more than 330 people, the majority of them children, were killed.
The scale of the violence at the school in Beslan, a city in the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, Russia, and the fact that the attackers deliberately targeted young children had traumatised the Russian public and horrified the outside world.
The siege in Beslan began on the morning of September 1, 2004, when at least 32 armed individuals stormed the school and took more than 1,000 hostages, including pupils in both primary and secondary grades and their teachers, as well as parents and relatives who had gathered to celebrate the opening day of the new school year.
Some people died in the initial attack, but most were herded into a gymnasium, which the attackers rigged with explosives.
The siege ended on the morning of September 3, when explosions inside the school prompted Russian special forces to enter the building.
Responsibility for the atrocity was claimed by Riyadus-Salikhin, a Chechen liberation group, led by the notorious rebel warlord Shamil Basayev, who previously had been blamed for the takeover of a Moscow theatre in 2002 that ended in the deaths of some 130 hostages, the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, in May 2004, and countless other acts of terrorism and murder.
The attack in Pakistan was claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. TTP’s spokesman claimed that its six suicide bombers attacked army school, saying it was a revenge for the army’s operation against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area close to Peshawar.