Taliban attacked an Army-run school in Peshawar on Tuesday, officials and militants said, with over 100 students killed and another 200 reportedly wounded.
Five or six militants wearing military uniforms entered the Army Public School, reportedly through a graveyard located behind the school, according to a source at the school. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the gunmen had been ordered to shoot older students but not children.
“There has been an incident of firing at Army Public School in Peshawar. Troops have cordoned off the area and [are] searching for the militants,” a senior military official told AFP. He said troops had surrounded the school, and television footage showed soldiers taking up positions. According to local media, there were 1,500 children in the school at the time of the attack.
The school on Peshawar’s Warsak Road 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 range in age from around 10 to 18. The schools educate the children of both officers and non-commissioned soldiers and Army wives often teach in them.
An eyewitness has told Newsweek that one of the attackers has detonated a suicide jacket near the school auditorium, where two classes were attending a lecture at the time of the attack.
Ayaz Jamil, a spokesman for the Lady Reading Hospital, said the institution had received over 40 injured so far. “Over 10 of the injured are currently in critical condition,” he added. “We fear the death toll will rise.” The hospital has appealed to all residents of Peshawar to donate blood on immediate basis, saying there is a severe need for more blood to treat the injured.
Distraught parents thronged the Lady Reading Hospital in the wake of the attack, 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. “O God, why did you snatch away my son? What is the sin of my child and all these children?” she wept.
Shehram Khan, minister for health, told media 26 people had been killed—24 schoolchildren, one female teacher, and one soldier. He added that 46 injured were currently hospitalized. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak later amended the death toll, claiming 104 people—84 of them schoolchildren—were dead and approximately 83 others injured. He said 60 of the deceased had been transferred to the Civil Military Hospital while the rest had been received at the Lady Reading Hospital. In a tweet, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Home Department said that the death toll had crossed 126 with firing still underway. Local media reported that the death toll had reached 130, with schoolchildren comprising the vast majority of the deceased. More than 200 are injured, it added.
Shuja Khan, one of the students who was evacuated to safety, told Newsweek: “The attack occurred when a senior military officer was addressing a function at the school.” He said he believed the senior official’s presence had prompted the attack, saying the militants opened fire as soon as the official started speaking. “The moment they [terrorists] opened fire, we were told to lie down on the floor and we immediately complied,” he said. “I heard an explosion after a gunman shouted ‘Allah-o-Akbar,’” he added.
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.
A student who survived the attack said soldiers came to rescue students during a lull in the firing. “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.”
The Pakistan military, in a statement, informed media the majority of teachers and students had been evacuated but there were still “many” within the school. Ahmed Wali, a member of the Police Elite Force, claimed the Pakistan Army had already killed two terrorists. However, he said there were still at least three more militants engaged in combat with the military. In a subsequent statement issued at 3:45 p.m., the military said that the militants had been confined to four blocks of the school, and that four terrorists had been killed so far. “5th terrorist killed in the last under clearance block of school,” the military spokesman tweeted about 25 minutes later, adding that two children and two teachers had also been rescued. At 5:15 p.m., spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa tweeted that the sixth militant had also been killed and an additional four hostages had been rescued. “IEDs planted by terrorists hamper speed of clearance,” he added.
The attack comes as the Pakistani military wages a major offensive against Taliban and other militants in North Waziristan. The TTP spokesman said the attack was in retaliation for the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Spokesman Muhammad Khorasani also told AFP there were six attackers. “They include target killers and suicide attackers. They have been ordered to shoot the older students but not the children,” he said. “They [military] was always wrong about our capabilities,” he told Newsweek. “We are still able to carry out major attacks. This was just the trailer.”
Khorasani further claimed that the Army Public School was targeted because “nearly all the students are children of Army personnel.” He warned the military to stop releasing statements claiming it had killed militants, adding that if their demands were not met, they would continue targeting military-run organizations. According to the TTP spokesman, the military has only been able to kill 10 militants in the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb. He claimed the military’s figure of over 1,200 militants killed was false.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa information minister Mushtaq Ghani confirmed there were six militants in the school. He said this attack would not be tolerated. “Attacking innocent children is the most abominable crime,” he said, adding that the attack was likely in reaction to the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb. “The provincial government has announced compensation of Rs. 500,000 for families of the deceased, and Rs. 200,000 for families of injured,” said Najiullah Khattak, the spokesman for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s chief minister.
P.M. Nawaz Sharif has condemned the attack and vowed that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. During a press conference, he said Operation Zarb-e-Azb would continue until terrorism had been eradicated from the country. He said the military operation had reached a “decisive” juncture and the nation needed to unite against terrorists. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan, whose party rules in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, has also condemned the “barbaric” attack. Both leaders also decided to travel to Peshawar to meet victims of the attack and oversee the ongoing military offensive. Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif also cut short a trip to Quetta and rushed to Peshawar to oversee the military operation. The PTI has announced three days of mourning in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It also announced that a nationwide strike, scheduled for Dec. 18, had been indefinitely postponed in light of the tragedy.
India also condemned the deadly attack with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying the incident exposed the “real face of terrorism.”
“I strongly condemn the terrorist attack on a school at Peshawar,” he tweeted. “This dastardly & inhuman attack exposes the real face of terrorism. My heart goes out to the families of those children who got killed by the terrorists in Peshawar.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also tweeted his condemnations, saying: “It is a senseless act of unspeakable brutality that has claimed lives of the most innocent of human beings—young children in their school.” He added: “My heart goes out to everyone who lost their loved ones today. We share their pain & offer our deepest condolences.”
Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, said she was “heartbroken” by “the senseless and cold blooded killing” of scores of children by the Taliban militants. “Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this,” Yousafzai said in a statement. “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.”
Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said the attack was intended to weaken the military’s resolve. “It is both tactical and strategic. The militants know they won’t be able to strike at the heart of the military, they don’t have the capacity because the Army is prepared,” he told AFP. “So they are going for soft targets. These attacks have a great psychological impact.”