Militants stormed an army-run school in Pakistan Tuesday, killing at least 141 people, almost all of them children, in the country’s bloodiest ever terror attack.
Survivors described how the insurgents went from room to room shooting children as young as 12 during the eight-hour onslaught at the Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
The attack, claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as revenge for a major military offensive in the region, was condemned by the U.S., U.N. and Western powers, as well as Pakistan’s archrival India.
The Pakistani government and military reaffirmed their determination to defeat the TTP, which has killed thousands since it began its insurgency in 2007. Chief military spokesman General Asim Bajwa said 132 students and nine staff were killed, and 125 wounded. This exceeds the 139 killed in blasts targeting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi in 2007.
A senior security official told AFP authorities were investigating the nationality of the attackers since some were speaking in Arabic.
The Lady Reading Hospital was thronged with distraught parents 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.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced three days of 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.
Sajid Khan, the uncle of 10-year-old Gul Sher, said his nephew had plans to become a doctor, but instead God had placed him in casket. “We cannot take the revenge from the terrorists but we pray to Allah to take the revenge.”
Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, herself shot by the Taliban in 2012, said she was “heartbroken” by “the senseless and cold-blooded” killing.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the attack as “heinous” and said America would stand by Pakistan in its struggle against violent extremism.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister of Pakistan’s neighbor and bitter rival India, said he had phoned Sharif to offer condolences.
“India stands firmly with Pakistan in fight against terror. Told PM Sharif we are ready to provide all assistance during this hour of grief,” Modi tweeted.
The Afghanistan Taliban also condemned the attack. “The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. The Pakistani Taliban are separate from but allied to the Afghan Taliban across the border.
TTP spokesman Mohammad Khorasani said Tuesday’s assault was carried out to avenge Taliban fighters and their families killed in the army’s offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan.
“We are doing this because we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed,” he said. “We are taking this step so that their families should mourn as ours are mourning.”
The military has hailed the offensive as a major success in disrupting the TTP’s insurgency. More than 1,600 militants have been killed since the launch of operation Zarb-e-Azb in June, according to data compiled by AFP from regular military statements.