Pakistan mourns university massacre victims

Pakistani students light candles for the victims of Bacha Khan University attack, in Quetta, Pakistan, on Jan 20, 2016.
Pakistani students light candles for the victims of Bacha Khan University attack, in Quetta, Pakistan, on Jan 20, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

CHARSADDA, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan observed a day of national mourning Thursday (Jan 21) for the 21 people killed when heavily-armed gunmen stormed a university in the troubled northwest, exposing the failings in a national crackdown on extremism.

Armed police, some perched on the roofs of buildings, were still deployed Thursday (Jan 21) morning at the Bacha Khan university campus in Charsadda, where students were targeted with grenades and automatic weapons, an AFP reporter said.

Security forces remained on alert, with police foiling a bomb attack at a crowded bus station in nearby Peshawar Thursday (Jan 21) morning.

Wednesday’s (Jan 20) assault, claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taleban, bore a chilling resemblance to a December 2014 massacre at a school in nearby Peshawar that triggered a crackdown on militants that had been credited with a palpable improvement in security.

The majority of the 21 dead were laid to rest shortly after the attack according to Muslim tradition, while around 1,000 people in a nearby village attended the funeral on Thursday (Jan 21) of a university caretaker killed.

One of the wounded students, a geology major, died overnight and his funeral was also to be held later Thursday (Jan 21).

Seven other survivors were in stable condition and being treated in local hospitals, officials said.

Defiant authorities kept schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province open Thursday (Jan 21).

“Militants want them shut down,” provincial education minister Arif Khan told AFP. “We wanted to send the message that education will continue.” Only Bacha Khan university and its sister university Abdul Wali Khan in the town of Mardan were closed, he said.

Flags will fly at half-mast on all government buildings inside and outside the country, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said, while a prayer ceremony will be held in the capital Islamabad.

More than 200 sportsmen and women gathered along with officials from the Pakistan Sport Board (PSB) at a complex in the capital earlier Thursday (Jan 21) to offer prayers for the victims.

“We are determined that the young generation of Pakistan will not bow down to the terrorists,” PSB director Akhtar Nawaz said.

Sharif has vowed a “ruthless” response to the massacre and ordered security forces to hunt those behind Wednesday’s (Jan 20) attack, which was claimed by a Pakistani Taleban faction but branded “un-Islamic” by the umbrella group’s leadership.

Security forces killed all four gunmen during the assault, and said they hoped to identify them “soon”.

Among the victims was assistant chemistry professor Syed Hamid Husain who was lauded for challenging the gunmen and firing at them with his pistol while his terrified students raced for cover.

Husain was buried in his home village of Swabi as those who knew him paid tribute, saying he had been known by students even before his death as “The Protector”.

The majority of the student victims died at a hostel for young men where security forces cornered the attackers.

Pools of blood and overturned furniture could be seen inside the hostel, while in a back alley outside, an old wooden plaque on the wall proclaimed: “Heroes die young”.

Meanwhile the bodies of militants, bloodied and with their clothes torn, were unceremoniously dumped on the floor of a truck before being taken away from the scene.

The assault resembled a December 2014 assault at a Peshawar school in which more than 150 people were killed, mostly children.
Around 25 of their relatives held a candlelight vigil in Peshawar late Wednesday (Jan 20) for those slain in the latest attack.

The strike on the army school united Pakistanis, already scarred by a decade of assaults, in shock and outrage and prompted the military to intensify an ongoing offensive against extremists in the tribal areas, and the government to launch a crackdown on extremism.

Security improved in 2015, which saw the fewest deaths from militant violence since the formation of the Pakistani Taleban in 2007 – but critics have repeatedly warned the government is not taking long-term steps to tackle the underlying scourge of extremism.

“We are not safe,” Ajun Khan, who lost his only son Asfand in the attack on the Peshawar school, told AFP Wednesday (Jan 20).