Pakistan suffered the worst terrorist attack of a seven-year Taliban insurgency Tuesday when militants rampaged through an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar, killing at least 141 people, mostly students, in what the militants described as revenge for months of airstrikes on their tribal area strongholds by Pakistan warplanes and CIA drones.
Many of the dead eighth- through 12th-graders were the sons of Pakistani army officers who have been waging a decisive campaign since June against militants of the insurgent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group and its al-Qaida allies in the North Waziristan tribal area, bordering Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages” and declared three days of national mourning for the victims.
“These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss,” he said.
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A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said the army-run school had been targeted because “we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed.”
If the extremists had hoped the attack would cause the government to ease off its military offensive, it appeared to have the opposite effect. Sharif pledged to step up the campaign.
A security alert issued a week earlier by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government had warned of an imminent assault on the Army Public School.
A wave of outrage crossed national boundaries, with statements of support and sympathy for the victims’ families from around the world.
Even other militant groups felt obligated to comment, though probably more cynically. A spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, which pushed Afghan civilian casualties to a new high in the past year, posted a Twitter message criticizing the attack as un-Islamic and expressing shared pain with the families.
The raiding militants used subterfuge to evade guards. Dressed in paramilitary uniforms, they ran through a graveyard and scaled the rear wall of the campus, splitting up into two-man teams who scoured rooms in the school’s five buildings, shooting students and staff on sight.
The most lethal attack was in the auditorium, which the militants entered about 10.30 a.m. local time, as students gathered to attend a workshop on first aid conducted by army medics. One militant detonated the suicide-bomb vest he was wearing, while others unleashed a hail of gunfire.
A 14-year-old, Mehran Khan, said about 400 students were in the hall when the gunmen broke through the doors and started shooting. They shot one teacher in the head and then set her on fire and shouted, “God is great!” as she screamed, added Mehran, who survived by playing dead.
The militants tried to single out the survivors for execution. “Our instructor asked us to duck and lay down,” a student named Zeeshan said at the hospital. “Then I saw militants walking past rows of students shooting them in the head.”
Elsewhere in the school, teachers, realizing what was going on, tried to protect their charges. A 7-year-old named Afaq broke down as he described militants’ spraying bullets as they rushed his classroom. “They killed our teacher,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.
Although early assessments indicated the gunmen were intent on mounting a long siege — some were carrying stores of food — a senior security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted they had shown no intention of taking hostages. “They were there to kill, and this is what they did,” he said.
The school turned into a battleground when commandos from the army’s elite Special Services Group moved in. As the battle for control spread across the school, cornered militants blew up their suicide vests.
Hundreds of students were evacuated by army special forces during lulls in firing, stumbling across wounded and dead students, teachers and other staff as they fled.
All the militants died in the attack. Of the 141 people slain before government troops ended the assault, 132 were children and nine were staff members. Another 121 students and three staff members were wounded.
Distraught parents thronged the city’s major hospital, Lady Reading, searching for their children as the reported death toll rapidly escalated.
“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” wailed one parent, Tahir Ali, as he came to the hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old son, Abdullah. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”
Survivors said the militants had sought out the sons of serving army officers from the survivors they had held hostage until the raiders were killed about eight hours after the attack began.
The military has said that about 1,700 militants have been killed since the launch of a massive operation in North Waziristan, billed as the final chapter in a five-year counterinsurgency campaign that’s claimed the lives of more than 60,000 Pakistanis.
Globally, the attack generated a wave of opprobrium outstripping even the one that followed the October 2012 Taliban gun attack on Malala Yousafzai.
“I am heartbroken by this senseless and coldblooded act of terror,” she said Tuesday. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”
Yet the statements of solidarity and defiance masked an awkward reality. While Pakistan has suffered many bloody atrocities before, the country’s leaders have yet to find a solution to the Taliban insurgency.
Critics say it is partly their own fault: The military continues to support the “good Taliban” — selected militant groups that share its strategic goals in India and Afghanistan — while the political leadership is often reluctant to openly criticize the militants.
As the bodies piled up in Peshawar, some dared to wonder if this atrocity would be a turning point.
In a Peshawar hospital, meanwhile, soldiers cleared the last of the school’s four blocks. The principal, Tahira Qazi, was among the dead.
At a city hospital, staffers laid out a row of children’s bodies as armed guards stood over a pile of small wooden coffins.
The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed to this report.