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At Least 21 Killed In Pakistani University Attack; Taliban Claims Responsibility

By Zulfiqar Ali and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Gunmen broke into a university campus in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday morning, fatally shooting students in their dorm rooms in an assault that left at least 21 people dead, police and hospital officials said.

A commander of the Pakistani Taliban, which has frequently attacked educational institutions in a long insurgency against the government, claimed responsibility for the attack.

A Pakistani army spokesman said four militants were shot and killed by army soldiers at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, east of the city of Peshawar.

It was one of the most brazen attacks claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, and came barely one year after the militant group raided an army-run public school in Peshawar, massacring more than 150 people, most of them children.

Officials and witnesses said the assailants took advantage of a thick wintry fog that had blanketed the campus, impairing visibility.

They scaled a wall at the rear entrance to the campus around 9 a.m. after cutting a coil of barbed wire, and rushed toward a nearby dormitory for male students, lobbing hand grenades into the rooms, authorities said.

Shahzad Khan, a security guard, said he opened fire at the assailants but ran out of ammunition.

Witnesses said one professor and at least two female students were among the dead, along with campus security guards.

Abdul Majeed, a photojournalist who visited the scene, said the bodies of students lay in the dorm rooms. The four attackers were shot and killed inside the dormitory, he said.

Doctors said 19 bodies and 14 injured people reached a government hospital in Charsadda, while rescue teams raced from Peshawar, about 20 miles away, and other nearby cities. Officials feared the death toll would rise because many others were injured, some seriously.

Students said the attackers opened fire indiscriminately. “There was a thick fog and I heard gunfire,” said Zakir Ali, a student who suffered a bullet injury.

Faiz Muhammad, a resident, said that firing continued for at least four hours and that army troops besieged the campus, with helicopters circling overhead.

“I heard at least eight loud blasts inside the campus,” Muhammad said.

Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, visited the university after soldiers from the elite Special Services Group had cleared the campus. Sharif was “grieved over (the) tragic loss,” according to a statement from the military spokesman, Asim Bajwa.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement that the government was “determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland.”

A Pakistani Taliban commander, Umar Mansoor Narrray, told reporters by telephone that four attackers had been sent to the university in retaliation for a Pakistani military offensive that has targeted the group since mid-2014. But later, the Pakistani Taliban’s chief spokesman denied the group was behind the incident.

The Pakistani army says the operation, dubbed Zarb-e-Azb, has killed hundreds of militants in the North Waziristan tribal region. But analysts say many fighters have moved to cities or across the border into Afghanistan, and the insurgent group has continued to carry out attacks.

Pakistani intelligence agencies had issued a security alert Jan. 3, citing information that at least eight suicide bombers had entered the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from Afghanistan and could try to target educational institutions.

Since the December 2014 massacre at the army-run school, Pakistan announced a host of measures that officials said would fight terrorism, including lifting a moratorium on the death penalty. Human rights groups say more than 330 death row convicts have been executed since December 2014, although many of them were not found guilty in terrorism cases.

As militant violence has risen in Pakistan over the last decade, educational institutions have been particularly vulnerable. Since the 1970s, more people have died in attacks on schools in Pakistan than in any other country, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.

In 2012, Pakistani Taliban gunmen shot Malala Yousafzai, the girls education activist who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wednesday’s attack came on the anniversary of the death of the university’s namesake, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, a pacifist who led nonviolent campaigns against British colonial rule.
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(Ali is a special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh.)

Photo: Blood stains are seen at the Bacha Khan University following an attack by gunmen in northwest Pakistan’s Charsadda on Jan. 20, 2016. A splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the attack on a university in the country’s northwest district of Charsadda, which has reportedly killed 21 people and wounded more than 50 others. (Umar Qayyum/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Children Among 130 Dead In Taliban Attack On Pakistan School

By Zulfiqar Ali and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani Taliban militants stormed an army-run school Tuesday, killing at least 130 people, including scores of children, many of whom were shot in the head. Hundreds of teachers and students were held hostage during an hours-long gun battle with security forces.

Gunmen wearing the uniforms of security forces, some strapped with suicide vests, went from classroom to classroom at the sprawling school in this northeastern Pakistan city, firing at children as some students cowered under their desks, witnesses said.

Pakistani soldiers and police commandos killed six assailants and escorted several students and teachers to safety, officials said. By nightfall, seven hours after the siege began, an unknown number of hostages were believed to still be trapped in the school compound.

An army spokesman said security forces had cleared all but one of the school buildings, but that improvised bombs planted by the attackers were creating hazards.

Mushtaq Ghani, the information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, said that 130 people had been killed, most of them students, making it one of the deadliest terror attacks in troubled Pakistan in years. Earlier reports said 84 children were killed, along with teachers and one member of the security forces.

Dozens of others were wounded, some critically, said hospital officials, who pleaded with the public for blood donations.

Children in school uniforms fled the besieged campus, some escorted by Pakistani security forces. Television images showed bloodied students being loaded into ambulances and carried through hospital corridors packed with anguished relatives of the dead and wounded.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who flew to Peshawar to oversee the military operation, said Pakistan was at war with terrorism.

“Such attacks are expected in the wake of a war and the country should not lose its strength,” Sharif said.

Eight to 10 gunmen wearing the uniforms of security forces entered the Army Public School around 11 a.m. and broke into an auditorium where ninth- and 10th-grade students were listening to a lecture, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Executive Pervez Khattak told reporters outside Lady Reading Hospital, where many of the injured were being treated.

One attacker blew himself up while two others were killed by security forces, he said. Several gunmen were reportedly holed up in the school principal’s office as the military operation continued, he said.

Tenth-grader Shah Rukh Khan said he was in the auditorium when armed men barged into the hall and opened fire.

“I immediately hid beneath the desk and they continued firing,” he said.

A teenage student who was rescued by security forces said he saw a gunman of about 25 years old firing indiscriminately at students. The student, who requested anonymity, said he saw several injured classmates as he was escorted to safety.

“One of my classmates was dead,” he said.

Some of the injured were taken to Combined Military Hospital ten minutes away, while others were brought to Lady Reading.

“Many are in the operation theater and are now in critical condition, undergoing treatment,” said Ejaz Khan, a Lady Reading official.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was retaliation for the Pakistani military’s months-long offensive in northeastern Pakistan’s tribal areas, an action that officials say has killed hundreds of militants.

Most of the school’s approximately 700 students, ranging from kindergartners through 10-graders, are children of army personnel. Some teachers are the wives of army officers.

A Taliban spokesman, Muhammad Khorsani, told Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper: “We will target every institution linked to the army unless they stop operations and the extrajudicial killing of our detainees.”

The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is a loose federation of militant groups seeking to overthrow Pakistan’s civilian government and establish Islamic law in the country. The TTP, which is ideologically allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan but operationally a separate organization, has carried out brazen attacks against civilians before, but this was by far the biggest and deadliest operation it has ever launched against children.

Waging a violent campaign against education for girls, which it deems un-Islamic, Taliban gunmen have attacked hundreds of Pakistani schools — most famously shooting teenage student activist Malala Yousafzai in the head in October 2012. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.

In September 2013, two suicide bombers linked to the insurgent group killed 127 people and injured more than 250 at a church in Peshawar, the deadliest attack ever on Pakistan’s Christian minority.

Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif denounced the school attack in a statement. “Terrorists wanted to spread pain and destabilize the country but they would not be allowed to succeed in their evil designs,” Asif said.

The Pakistani military has claimed success in its offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan, which has coincided with a stepped up campaign of U.S. drone strikes. But analysts say many Pakistani Taliban militants escaped to neighboring areas, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“The attack on the Army Public School clearly shows that the TTP has been able to maintain its operational network, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has emerged as a hub of militant activity,” said Sameer Patil, a security analyst with Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai, India.

“The news from Pakistan is deeply shocking,” tweeted British Prime Minister David Cameron. “It’s horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.”

AFP Photo