Pakistan school attack: They burst in, started firing rapidly, recalls teen survivor

PESHAWAR - "A lot of the children are under the benches... Kill them," a Taleban gunman said, as a group of militants made their way through the school hallways in Peshawar.

Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Faraz remembered being in the auditorium of his Army Public School and Degree College on Tuesday when four or five people burst in through a back door and "started firing rapidly". Shot in the left shoulder, the ninth-grader lay under a bench, CNN reported. "My shoulder was peeking out of the bench," Ahmed recalled when he heard the gunman telling his group to look under the benches. "(When) they went into another room, I ran to the exit."

By the time the hours-long siege at the school ended on Tuesday, 141 people - including 132 children, school staff members and soldiers - were dead, military spokesman General Asim Bajwa said. They made no demands, wore suicide vests and had attempted to plant explosives on the school grounds during the attack. "These people were not humans; they were monsters," Gen Bajwa said.

Some of the 1,100 students at the school were lined up and slaughtered with shots to the head. Others were gunned down as they cowered under their desks, or forced to watch their teachers being riddled with bullets. More than 100 were injured, many with gunshot wounds, according to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani, CNN reported.

"Our instructor asked us to duck and lay down," a student named Zeeshan said in an interview at the hospital. "Then I saw militants walking past rows of students shooting them in the head," he told the New York Times. Elsewhere in the school, teachers, realising what was going on, abruptly cancelled classes and exams, and tried to protect their charges, who ranged in age from roughly five to 17.

Gen Bajwa told reporters that Pakistani security forces reached the school 15 minutes after the attack began. They found, he said, "the children... drenched in blood, with their bodies on top of each other".

Most of those killed were between the ages of 12 and 16, said Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital. But some adults in the school also were targets, like a 28-year-old office assistant who was shot and then burned alive, police official Faisal Shehzad said.

Another teenage survivor, Shahrukh Khan, described how he played dead after being shot in both legs to escape from the militants as they rampaged through the school, hunting for people to kill.

The 16-year-old said he and his classmates ducked below their desks when four gunmen burst into their room. "I saw a pair of big black boots coming towards me, this guy was probably hunting for students hiding beneath the benches," Khan told AFP from his hospital bed. Khan decided to play dead after being shot in both legs, stuffing his tie into his mouth to stifle his screams. "The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again," he said.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack as retaliation for a major military offensive in the region, saying its militants had been ordered to shoot older students.

The attack drew sharp condemnation from top Pakistani officials, who vowed that the country would not stop its war against the Taleban.

"We are undeterred... We will not back off," Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told CNN.

But he said the ambush at the school is another example of how great his nation's sacrifices have been in fighting that has raged for more than a decade.

"Even the children are dying on the frontline in the war against terror," he said. "The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry... It's a very, very tragic day."

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced three days of national mourning and described the attack as a "national tragedy unleashed by savages".

"These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation's loss," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.