Bloodbath in Pakistan as Taliban school attack kills 141

The attack in Peshawar was one of the most lethal and most brutal of a seven-year Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 60,000 Pakistanis.
An injured schoolboy is carried to hospital by security guards after the attack by Taliban gunmen on an army high school in Peshawar.  Mohammad Sajjad / AP Photo
An injured schoolboy is carried to hospital by security guards after the attack by Taliban gunmen on an army high school in Peshawar. Mohammad Sajjad / AP Photo

ISLAMABAD // A Taliban death squad gunned down dozens of children one classroom at a time in a raid on a Pakistani army high school that killed at least 141 people.

The attack in Peshawar was one of the most lethal and most brutal of a seven-year Taliban insurgency that has killed more than 60,000 Pakistanis.

The city’s major hospital was flooded with young casualties in their school uniforms, many with multiple gunshot wounds. Throngs of distraught parents filled the wards searching for their children as news spread of the scale of the bloodshed.

“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” said Tahir Ali, as he came to the hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old, Abdullah. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”

A military spokesman said 132 students and nine teachers were killed in the attack, and 121 students and three teachers were wounded.

Many of the dead were the children of officers and non-commissioned soldiers in Pakistan’s military, which since June has waged a decisive campaign against militants from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group and its Al Qaeda allies in the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, described the attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages” and declared three days of national mourning.

“These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss,” he said.

The morning attack started when seven militants, armed with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests, drove up to the rear of the school, which backs on to a tightly-populated suburb.

Dressed in paramilitary uniforms, they torched their car, ran through a graveyard, and scaled the rear wall of the large campus.

They split up into teams and began scouring rooms in the school’s five buildings, shooting students and teachers as they went.

The worst of the bloodshed took place in the school’s auditorium, which the militants entered through the school canteen at about 10.30am. Hundreds of students from grades eight, nine and 10 were taking part in a first-aid workshop conducted by army medics.

The militants burst in and opened fire, killing and wounding dozens. Witnesses said one of the attackers detonated a suicide-bomb jacket. After hearing gunshots and an explosion, grade 11 and 12 students sitting exams in the upper storey of a building were told by teachers to lie flat and hide in a corner of the classroom.

Shahrukh Khan, 16, said he and his classmates ducked below their desks when four gunmen burst into their room. He was shot in the legs and played dead to escape the militants, 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 from the trauma ward of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital

“My body was shivering. I saw death so close and I will never forget the black boots approaching me – I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.”

Hundreds of students were evacuated by special forces units during lulls in firing, stumbling across wounded and dead students, teachers and other staff as they fled through school corridors.

“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,” a student said.

They emerged in small groups, walking several hundred metres to safety. Images of pupils fleeing the school in their green-sweater uniforms, clearly traumatised, were broadcast live to a shocked nation.

Several hundred survivors were held hostage in the auditorium as militants used automatic gunfire and grenades to delay the security forces, who proceeded cautiously to avoid further student casualties.

Witnesses said the militants sought out the sons of serving army officers to use as hostages.

The seven-hour attack ended when officials announced troops had killed all the militants they encountered, although residents reported several may have escaped.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the raid was carried out to avenge the deaths of hundreds of militants in the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan.

The campaign has been characterised by airstrikes on the homes, safe houses and camps of leaders of the Taliban and other militant groups. The Pakistani military has said 1,700 militants have been killed in the operation to date, while 100 soldiers have died.

The school was targeted because “we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed”, the Taliban spokesman said.

“We are taking this step so that their families should mourn as ours are mourning.”

A security alert issued last week by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government had warned of an imminent assault on the Army Public School on Warsak Road, a heavily guarded garrison area of Peshawar.

The school itself was guarded by soldiers, some manning elevated posts along the boundary wall, while others carried out regular patrols of its perimeter.

The attack on the school is reminiscent of a December 2009 assault by a five-man militant squad on a prayer congregation at a mosque in Rawalpindi, attended mostly by serving and retired military personnel and their relatives, killing 37 and wounding 61.

That, too, was characterized by the Pakistan Taliban as a vengeance attack, following the launch of a military offensive against the then militant stronghold of South Waziristan tribal area that has since proven to be turning point of Pakistan’s war on terror.

Yesterday’s attack was the deadliest in Pakistan since a 2008 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi that killed 150 people.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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