TALEBAN gunmen stormed an army-run school in north-western Pakistan yesterday, killing 132 children and nine members of staff in the deadliest attack on the country in recent years.
The overwhelming majority of victims were pupils who were beginning morning lessons at the school in Peshawar when the militants attacked.
Police officer Javed Khan said about half a dozen gunmen scaled the school walls and started firing at random. Pakistani army commandos quickly arrived on the scene and exchanged fire with the gunmen as a handful of terrified pupils wearing the school’s green uniform fled in the building.
As news of the attack spread, frantic parents raced to the school in search of their children. A stream of ambulances carried 121 injured children and three wounded staff members, along with the dead, to local hospitals.
“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” cried 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.”
Last night a Pakistani military spokesman, Asim Bajwa, declared that the day-long operation was over and the area had been cleared. He said all the attackers, wearing explosives vests, died in the assault. Some were killed by Pakistani soldiers; others blew themselves up.
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Mr Bajwa described an assault that seemed designed purely to terrorise the children rather than to further the militant group’s aims.
“Their sole purpose, it seems, was to kill those innocent kids. That’s what they did,” he said.
The militant group, Tehreek-e-Taleban, which is intent on overthrowing the Pakistani government, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the killings of Taleban members at the hands of the Pakistani authorities.
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif called the assault a “national tragedy” and rushed to Peshawar yesterday to show his support for the victims.
Throughout the day, Pakistani troops battled the gunmen. Armoured carriers were deployed around the school grounds and a Pakistani military helicopter circled overhead. At one stage, more than 200 children were reportedly being held hostage as the gun battle raged around them.
Mr Sharif vowed that the country would not be cowed by the violence and said the military would continue with an aggressive operation launched in June in the North Waziristan tribal area to eradicate militants.
“The fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it,” Mr Sharif said.
Last night, one of the wounded students, Abdullah Jamal, said that he was with a group of classmates who were getting first-aid instructions and training with a team of Pakistani army medics when the violence began.
When the shooting started, Jamal, who was shot in the leg, said nobody knew what was going on in the first few seconds.
“Then 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 the door and started shooting.
The school is located on the edge of a military district in Peshawar, but most of the students are civilian.
Peshawar has been the target of frequent militant attacks in the past but has seen a relative lull recently.
The Pakistani military launched the military operation in the nearby North Waziristan tribal area in June, vowing that it would go after all militant groups that had been operating in the region.
With the launch of the operation, security officials and civilians feared a backlash by militants targeted by the military but a widespread reaction had failed to materialise.
Yesterday’s attack was the worst in Pakistan since a 2008 suicide bombing in Karachi, which 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 Taleban 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.
Terror timeline: Attacks in Pakistan by terrorists
2 NOVEMBER, 2014: Taleban suicide bomber kills 60 in attack on a paramilitary checkpoint close to the Wagah border crossing with India.
9 JUNE, 2014: Ten gunmen disguised as police guards attack a terminal at Pakistan’s busiest airport with machine guns and a rocket launcher, killing 13.
8 JUNE, 2014: A suicide bomber in Pakistan’s south-west killed at least 23 Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran.
22 SEPTEMBER, 2013: A twin suicide bomb blast in a Peshawar church kills at least 85.
17 AUGUST, 2013: Heavily armed Taleban fighters blast their way into a Pakistani air force base, killing two security officers and nine insurgents.
22 JUNE, 2013: Ten foreign climbers killed by militants on Nanga Parbat, ninth highest mountain in world.
3 MARCH, 2013: Explosion in Karachi kills 45 Shiites outside a mosque.
10 JANUARY, 2013: Bombing in Shiite area of southern city of Quetta kills 81 people and wounds a further 120.
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