Pakistan yesterday woke up to days of mourning after Taliban militants killed 132 students at a school in the city of Peshawar in a grisly attack which shocked the nation and put pressure on the government to do more to tackle the insurgency.
Pakistanis waited to see what their government — long accused of not being tough enough on the Islamists — and the army would do to stem spiraling violence in a nation which has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda-linked groups.
Seeking to appear decisive, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he had lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in response to the massacre, in which students were gunned down and some of the female teachers were burned alive.
The focus was on Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif’s visit to Afghanistan where the two sides, their relationship strained after decades of mistrust, were due to discuss how to crack down together on militants hiding on their common border.
People around Pakistan lit candles and staged vigils as parents buried their children during mass funerals in and around Peshawar, city on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal belt.
Pakistanis may be used to almost daily attacks on security forces, but an outright assault on children stunned the country, prompting commentators to call for a tough military response.
In all, 148 people were killed in the attack on the military-run Army Public School and 121 students and three staff members were wounded.
The sprawling grounds of the school were all but deserted yesterday, with a handful of snipers manning the roofs of its pink brick-and-stone buildings. Army vehicles and soldiers wearing face masks and carrying automatic rifles were deployed by the entrance.
The school was a scene of heart-wrenching devastation as media were allowed in for the first time. Floors were slick with blood and walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Classrooms were filled with abandoned school bags, cellphones and broken chairs.
One wall was smashed where a suicide bomber blew himself up, blood splattered across it. His body parts were piled nearby on a white cloth. The air was thick with the smell of explosives and flesh.
The military recovered about 100 bodies from the auditorium alone, military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa said.
The body of the school principal, Tahira Qazi, was found among the debris from the rampage overnight on Tuesday. Her death raised further the earlier reported death toll of 147.
Qazi, who was inside her office when the militants made their way into the administration building 20m from the auditorium, had run and locked herself into the bathroom, but the attackers threw a grenade inside, through a vent, and killed her, Bajwa said.
A day after the attack, Peshawar appeared subdued and many people were still in shock. More details of the well-organized attack emerged as witnesses came forward with accounts.
“The attackers came around 10:30am on a pick-up van,” said Issam Uddin, a 25-year-old school bus driver. “They drove it around the back of the school and set it on fire to block the way. Then they went to Gate 1 and killed a soldier, a gatekeeper and a gardener. Firing began and the first suicide attack took place.”
Nawaz Sharif has announced three days of mourning, but people’s anxiety focused on what the authorities can do to protect them.
The prime minister came to power last year promising to negotiate peace with the Taliban — but those efforts failed this year, weakening his position and prompting the army to launch an air-and-ground operation against insurgents along the Afghan border.
The military staged more air strikes there late on Tuesday in response to the school attack, security sources said, but it was unclear what the target was.
The Pakistani Taliban, who are fighting to impose strict Islamic rule in Pakistan, are holed up in mountains straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The Taliban said the attack was revenge for a military offensive against their safe havens in the northwest, along the border with Afghanistan, which began in June.
Analysts said the school siege showed that even diminished, the militant group still could inflict horrific carnage.
Additional reporting by AP
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