Taliban attack on Pakistan school leaves 141 dead

Funeral services for some of the 141 children and staff killed in a Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, began Tuesday evening as the country's prime minister vowed to step up the offensive against those who claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistani PM vows to continue military campaign against militants operating in tribal areas

Funeral services for some of the 141 children and staff killed in a Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, began Tuesday evening.

As clerics announced the deaths over mosque loudspeakers, the government declared three days of mourning for those killed when gunmen stormed the school in the northwestern Pakistani city near the border with Afghanistan.

A candlelight vigil in Quetta, Pakistan, for the victims of Tuesday's Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar. At least 132 children and nine staff members were killed in the assault. (Shahzaib Akber/EPA)

The majority of victims were students at the school, which is attended by about 1,100 students in grades 1-10. Nine staff members also died in the attack and another 121 students and three staff members were wounded.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group bent on overthrowing the government, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who rushed to Peshawar soon after the assault began, condemned the attack and pledged to step up the campaign that — along with U.S. drone strikes — has targeted Taliban militants in the Waziristan tribal region southwest of Peshawar.

"We will take account of each and every drop of our children's blood," he said.

The military launched an offensive in June in North Waziristan, vowing to go after all militant groups that operate in the region that borders Afghanistan. Security officials and civilians had feared retribution by militants, but until Tuesday, a widespread backlash had failed to materialize.

Rescue workers carry the coffin of a student killed in the attack. Funeral services for many of the victims were held Tuesday evening. (Khuram Parvez/Reuters)
The assault on the school began in the morning when seven militants wearing vests of explosives scaled a back wall of the school using a ladder. They opened fire when they reached an auditorium where students had gathered for an event. From there, they went to classrooms and other parts of the school.

Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and started exchanging fire with the gunmen. It took them eight hours to end the assault and clear the school. All of the attackers died in the assault, but it was not immediately clear whether they were killed by soldiers or whether they blew themselves up.

Pakistani military spokesman Asim Bajwa said the militants did not seem to have any intention of taking the children hostage or making demands that would further the group's aims.

"Their sole purpose, it seems, was to kill those innocent kids. That's what they did," he said.

TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the attackers were ordered to "shoot older students but not children," but survivors of the attack told media the gunmen shot indiscriminately, and some of the victims were as young as 10.

Many of the students at the school are children of military personnel, meaning the attack is sure to enrage the country's powerful army. 

World leaders react

The attack drew swift condemnation from around the world. U.S. President Barack Obama said the "terrorists have once again showed their depravity."

The images are absolutely gut-wrenching: young children carried away in ambulances, a teacher burned alive in front of the students, a house of learning turned into a house of unspeakable horror.- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry added: "The images are absolutely gut-wrenching: young children carried away in ambulances, a teacher burned alive in front of the students, a house of learning turned into a house of unspeakable horror."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Pakistan's longtime regional rival, called it "a senseless act of unspeakable brutality."

"My heart goes out to everyone who lost their loved ones today. We share their pain & offer our deepest condolences," Modi said in a series of tweeted statements.

Even Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan decried the killing spree, calling it "un-Islamic."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a news conference in Quebec City that the targeting of children makes Tuesday's act particularly heinous.

Relatives of Mohammed Ali Khan mourn the 15-year-old student killed in the attack. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

"It's hard for any of us, as rational and compassionate people, to understand terrorism — to understand why people would want, in the name of some political cause, to simply terrorize, hurt kill innocent people, whole sections of society," he said. "But I think it is beyond our comprehension why somebody would target children."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was a "an act of horror and rank cowardice to attack defenceless children while they learn."

Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai issued a video statement responding to the attack.

"My family and I are heartbroken after hearing the news that more than 100 innocent children and teachers have lost their lives," the 17-year-old advocate for girls' education. "We stand with all those families and all those children who are injured right now and who are suffering through this big trauma."

Malala herself was a victim of a Taliban attack in 2012 when she was shot point blank while riding a bus to school. She has never returned to Pakistan out of security concerns.

Vigils for the students were held in several cities across the country.

'I saw children falling down'

Tuesday's horrific attack sent dozens of wounded flooding into local hospitals as terrified parents searched for their children.

"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."

Relatives of a student injured in the Taliban assault comfort each other outside Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters)

Outside the school, two loud booms of unknown origin were heard coming from the scene in the early afternoon, as Pakistani troops battled with the attackers. Armored personnel carriers were deployed around the school grounds, and a Pakistani military helicopter circled overhead.

Pakistani television showed soldiers surrounding the area and pushing people back. Ambulances streamed from the area to local hospitals.

The militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed the Peshawar school attack was revenge for the Pakistani military's incursions in the country's tribal areas. (Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press)
The school is part of a network of public schools and colleges run by the Pakistani military. The student body is made up of children of military personnel as well as civilians. A government official, Javed Khan, said most of the students appeared to be civilians rather than children of army staff. But analysts said the militants likely targeted the school because of its military connections.

"It's a kind of a message that we can also kill your children," said Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain.

One of the wounded students, Abdullah Jamal, said that he was with a group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders who were getting first-aid instructions and training with a team of Pakistani army medics when the violence began for real.

My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now.- Tahir Ali

When the shooting started, Jamal, who was shot in the leg, said nobody knew what was going on in the first few seconds.

"Then I saw children falling down who were crying and screaming. I also fell down. I learned later that I have got a bullet," he said, speaking from his hospital bed.

Another student, Amir Mateen, said they locked the door from the inside when they heard the shooting, but gunmen blasted through the door anyway and opened fire.

In a phone call to reporters, Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the suicide bombers carried it out to avenge the killings of Taliban members at the hands of Pakistani authorities.

Peshawar has been a frequent target of militant attacks in the past but has seen a relative lull recently.

Tuesday's attack calls into question whether the militants have been crippled by the military or will be able to regroup. This appeared to be the worst attack in Pakistan since a 2007 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi killed 150 people.

With files from CBCNews, Reuters