PESHAWAR (AFP, Reuters) - Pakistan's bloodiest insurgent attack in years has ended, police said Tuesday, with all six Taleban attackers killed nine hours after they stormed an army-run school in northwest Pakistan.
The assault on the school in the city of Peshawar claimed at least 130 lives, most of them students, according to officials.
“The combat operation is over, the security personnel are carrying out clearance operation and hopefully they will clear the building in a while,” police official Abdullah Khan told AFP. “Dead bodies of six terrorists have been found in the building.”
Senior police official Shafqat Malik confirmed the combat phase of the response was over, while chief army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter that the operation was “closing up”.
Bajwa said explosive devices planted in school buildings by the militants were slowing clearance efforts. Special forces soldiers had rescued more than a dozen staff and students, Bajwa said.
The Taleban said they had sent six gunmen wearing suicide vests into the school, taking hundreds of students and teachers hostage.
Bahramand Khan, director of information for the Chief Minister’s Secretariat said earlier more than 100 of the dead were school children.
One student told Pakistan’s Dunya Television: “An army doctor was visiting us teaching us about first aid when attackers came from behind our school and started firing,”.
“Our teachers locked the door and we ducked on the floor, but they (militants) broke down the door. Initially they fired in the air and later started killing the students, but left the hall suddenly.
“The attackers had long beards, wore shalwar kameez (traditional baggy clothes) and spoke Arabic.”
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.”
Senior provincial minister Inayatullah told AFP at least 104 bodies had been taken to two hospitals in Peshawar.
Distraught parents thronged one of the hospitals, the Lady Reading Hospital, 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.
It was not immediately clear whether some or all of the children were killed by the gunmen or in the ensuing battle with Pakistani security forces trying to gain control of the building.
Outside, helicopters hovered overhead and ambulances ferried wounded children to hospital.
“WE WANT THEM TO FEEL THE PAIN”
The Pakistani Taleban, who are fighting to topple the government and set up a strict Islamic state, have vowed to step up attacks in response to a major army operation against the insurgents in the tribal areas.
They have targeted security forces, checkpoints, military bases and airports, but attacks on civilian targets with no logistical significance are relatively rare. In September, 2013, dozens of people, including many children, were killed in an attack on a church, also in Peshawar.
The hardline Islamist movement immediately claimed responsibility. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taleban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
The army said in a statement earlier that many hostages had been evacuated but did not say how many. “Rescue operation by troops underway. Exchange of fire continues. Bulk of student(s) and staff evacuated. Reports of some children and teachers killed by terrorist,” the army said in a brief English-language statement.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack. “I can’t stay back in Islamabad. This is a national tragedy unleashed by savages. These were my kids,” he said in a statement. “This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss. I am leaving for Peshawar now and I will supervise this operation myself.”
Military officials at the scene said at least six armed men had entered the military-run Army Public School. About 500 students and teachers were believed to be inside.
“We were standing outside the school and firing suddenly started and there was chaos everywhere and the screams of children and teachers,” said Jamshed Khan, a school bus driver.
One student inside the school at the time of the attack told a private television channel: “We were in the examination hall when all of sudden firing started and our teachers told us to silently lay on the floor. We remained on the floor for an hour. There was a lot of gunfire...When the gunfire died down our soldiers came and guided us out.”
Originally the Taleban claimed the attackers - including a number of suicide bombers - had been instructed not to target children and shoot only adults.