Peshawar: In the bloodiest terror attack in Pakistan in years, at least 141 people, mostly children, were yesterday killed by heavily-armed Taliban suicide bombers who stormed an army-run school here and took several hostages, a throwback to the 2004 Beslan school siege by Chechen rebels.
A group of seven Arabic-speaking attackers, wearing para-military Frontier Corps uniforms, entered the Army Public School on Warsak Road around 10.30 am (local time), and started the massacre of innocents, spraying bullets indiscriminately, going from classroom to classroom.
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar
They also took several hostages, using them as human shield. The death toll in the attack has reached 141 with a majority of them being students, official sources said. At least 122 others have been injured. Officials said that seven militants have died four of them blew themselves up, while others were shot dead by security forces.
A parent weeps outside the hospital. Pics/AFP
20 teachers, including the principal, and 34 students were held as hostages, an official of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak’s office said. The attack ended after all the seven Taliban attackers were eliminated and a clean-up operation was being undertaken.
World leaders united in condemning the attack as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif termed it a “national tragedy” and chaired a security meeting in Peshawar, where he was briefed about the attack and operation. Sharif reiterated that the military operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ to flush out terrorists from the country’s tribal belt will continue. “It’s a sheer act of cowardice... the country should unite to combat terrorism,” he added.
About 960 students and teachers were believed to be inside the school when the attack started. 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, which has also been under threat since the last couple of days.
A heavy contingent of police and security forces have blocked the roads leading to the school, taking control of the entire area. Opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, whose party rules the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, termed the attack as an act of “barbarism”. In the wake of the attack, Khan postponed his plan to shut down the entire country that was planned for December 18.
Defence minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said in a statement, “We are deeply fragmented today as a nation. For the sake of the children martyred and our children fighting the enemy for our existence, we must have one message for the enemy (that) we shall overcome, inshallah and rid our land of this scourge. Zarb-e-Azb to continue with full force and (our) Armed forces remain undeterred.”
‘We want them to feel our pain’
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack, one of the worst in recent years. The Taliban spokesman claimed that its suicide bombers attacked the army school, saying it was a revenge for the army’s operation against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area close to Peshawar. “We want them to feel our pain,” the spokesman said.
In one of the most gruesome attacks in recent years against children anywhere in the world, the militants went from classroom to classroom, shooting indiscriminately at the shocked students, eyewitnesses told local media. In a similar incident in 2004, in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia, 32 armed individuals had stormed a school and took over 1,000 hostages, majority of them children. Over 330 people, mostly children, were killed in that assault.
Zarb-e-Azb: The Waziristan operation
Pakistan’s army had launched the massive military operation ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ in June, after a brazen militant attack on Karachi’s international airport and the failure of peace talks between the government and the Taliban negotiators. The military has said more than 1,300 militants have been killed during the operation in North Waziristan and the adjacent tribal region, and that it will continue till militancy is completely wiped out of Pakistan.
Shagufta, who lives near the school, said that she heard two explosions, a smaller one followed by a huge bang. A student who identified himself as Shuja said that they were taking an exam when the firing started. They were told by the teacher to lie down on the floor.
He said they remained on the floor for about one hour when army soldiers came and told them to go out. Several students escaped through the back gate. One of students who escaped said that the fourth period was in progress when they heard the firing. “First we didn’t really know what happened. But, later, an army officer told us to escape through the back gate,” he said.
Who are the TTP?
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an extremist and radical group, was formed under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud in December, 2007. The main objective of the TTP is to oppose the democratic rule of the Pakistan government and install the Sharia law. The TTP controls the tribal areas of Waziristan and around the Afghanistan border. Maulana Fazlullah is their leader since 2013.
No of children killed in the carnage
People rescued from the school
Number of suicide bombers that stormed the school
No of blasts that shook the school compound