By Tim Craig,
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban militants stormed an elite army high school in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least 126 students and teachers and holding others hostage, in one of the worst school shootings in modern times, according to Pakistani security and hospital officials.
More than three hours after the siege began at mid-day on a Pakistan military installation in Peshawar, explosions and gunfire continued to be heard coming from the school.
The carnage strikes at the heart of Pakistan’s military — one of the nation’s most highly respected institutions — which is seen as the guardians of stability in a turbulent region and an important bridge between Pakistan and Western allies such as the United States.
In June, Pakistan’s army launched a major operation against Islamic militants in the country’s restive tribal areas. Since then, the number of attacks inside the country have sharply declined, but the Pakistani Taliban had been warning for months that it would retaliate.
Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, chief spokesman for Pakistan’s military, said in a tweet about 3:30 p.m. local time that soldiers were moving ahead with efforts to free any remaining hostages.
“Three blocks of school cleared, remaining clearance in progress,” Bajwa said on Twitter.
A spokesman for the provincial government said 126 dead bodies had been recovered so far and 120 students and teachers had been wounded. Most of the dead were teenagers, he said.
Pervaiz Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, said eight to 10 terrorists wearing military uniforms carried out the attack. He said they started “indiscriminate firing” after entering the school through a back door.
“We condemn it, and those who did it will not be spared,” said Khattak.
Both Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani Army Chief Raheel Sharif rushed to Peshawar to personally oversee the rescue operation.
A defiant Sharif denounced the school assault as a “cowardly act” and vowed to maintain the military operations against militants in tribal areas “until the menace of terrorism is eliminated from Pakistani soil.”
“The nation needs to get united and face terrorism,” he added. “There is no room for any reluctance and we need unflinching resolve against this plague.”
Across Pakistan, many residents were glued to televisions, shocked and horrified at the images of bloodied children being rushed into overwhelmed hospitals. Hundreds of Pakistani army and police officials immediately headed to the scene.
Mushtag Ghani, the information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said many of the students were children of Pakistani military officers.
Some students who had been in the school reported seeing numerous dead bodies in the hallways.
Ghani said the terrorists immediately began shooting students when they entered the school through a back door.
“They started firing at students participating in a function at the auditorium,” Ghani told local journalists gathered at the scene. “The terrorists wanted to kill as many people as they could and they seemed to be not interested in hostage taking.”
Ahsam Mukhtar, a student at the school, said he was in a classroom when the assault started.
“Our teacher told us to lie on the ground, but the firing went on and it was very loud.” Mukhtar said in a televised interview. “Then the army came and took us out of the classrooms. In the corridor, I saw dead bodies with bullet injuries in the head. Some had wounds in their arms. I also saw our mathematics teacher lying injured on the floor.”
Pakistan media outlets were airing footage of students being carried into Lady Reading Hospital as grieving parents hovered over hospital beds.
In a statement, the Pakistani Taliban took credit for the attack, saying it was to avenge the Pakistan military operation in North Waziristan. The Taliban said six militants, including three suicide bombers, carried out the assault.
Sharif condemned the attack in a statement and said those behind it will “not be spared,” according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper.
The attack shatters what had been a period relative calm in Pakistan.
Hanan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistan military analyst, said in an interview the attack was an “unprecedented” even in a country that experienced thousands of terrorists attacks over the past decade.
He said the Taliban appears to growing more desperate as the Pakistan military operation against it continues in North Waziristan.
“Now they are attacking the soft targets,” Rizvi said. “This horrendous act of terror shows that the terrorists have weakened after military operation and that’s why less number of attacks but they still have the ability to strike at soft targets.
Last month, a suicide bombing killed more than 50 people during a military ceremony at the main public crossing between Pakistan and India.
The death toll in Peshawar already has made it among the worst bloodshed at a school in decades.
In September 2004, more than 330 people were killed — nearly half of them children — after Islamist rebels seized control of a school in Beslan in North Ossetia in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Some sources have placed the Beslan death toll higher.
Aimir Iqbal, Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaig Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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