“‘God is great,'” the Taliban militants exclaimed, as they roared through the hallways of a Peshawar, Pakistan, school.
Then, 14-year-old student Ahmed Faraz recalled, one of them changed the narrative.
” ‘A lot of the children are under the benches,’ ” a Pakistani Taliban member said, according to Ahmed. ” ‘Kill them.’ “
By the time the hours-long siege at Army Public School and Degree College ended early Tuesday evening, at least 137 people — most of them children — were dead, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani said. More than 100 were injured, many of them suffering gunshot wounds.
The death toll does not include the attackers. Mohammed Khurrassani, spokesman for Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan Taliban, said the six militants scaled the school’s walls around 10 a.m. (midnight ET), intent on killing older students there.
These Taliban had “300 to 400 people … under their custody” at one point, Khurrassani said.
They were eventually met by Pakistani troops who pushed through the school complex building by building, classroom by classroom. By 4 p.m., they’d managed to confine the attackers to four buildings. A few hours later, Peshawar police Chief Mohammad Aijaz Khan said that all of them were dead.
Still, the ordeal isn’t over.
Pakistani authorities remained inside the school in Peshawar, a city about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the country’s capital, Islamabad, looking for survivors, victims and improvised explosive devices planted to make the carnage even worse.
The story continues on many fronts, such as the military’s continued offensive against militants in northwest Pakistan and Peshawar hospitals where many young people are fighting for their lives.
In a tweet, military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa called the attack a “ghastly act of cowardice in killing innocents” that, in his view, proves that the Taliban are “not only enemies of (Pakistan) but enemies of humanity.”
“They have hit at the heart of the nation,” Bajwa said. “But … they can’t in any way diminish the will of this great nation.”
Minister: Most of the dead are 12 to 16 years old
On a typical day, the Army Public School and Degree College is home to up to 1,000 students, most of them sons and daughters of army personnel from around Peshawar though others attend as well. The boys and girls attend classes in different buildings on the compound.
How many of them will go home to their families alive remained in question Tuesday night, as Pakistani troops went room by room.
The Pakistani military had said that most students and teachers managed to evacuate the complex before being targeted or taken by the Taliban.
But many could not.
The nightmare began when a car exploded behind the school, Muhammad Ur Rehman, Pakistani education minister, told CNN.
“The security got their attention diverted (and) somehow they managed (to get) inside,” Rehman said.
Students said gunmen walked through where students in grades 8, 9 and 10 have classes and began firing randomly, said Dr. Aamir Bilal of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital.
Seventh-grader Mohammad Bilal said he was sitting outside his classroom taking a math test when the gunfire erupted. He fell into bushes before running to the school’s gates to safety.
Ahmed, the 14-year-old student, said that he was in the school’s auditorium when four or five people came in through a back door “and started rapidly firing.” After getting shot in his left shoulder, the ninth-grader lay under a bench.
“My shoulder was peeking out of the bench, and somebody was following,” Ahmed recalled. “They went into another room, (and when) I ran to the exit, I fell.”
Most of those killed were between the ages of 12 and 16, said Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital
By 7 p.m., Lady Reading Hospital had already taken in 31 dead boys and another 45 injured boys, Bilal said. He described the condition of the injured as very serious, noting that many of them had gunshot wounds all over their bodies.
Pakistan has seen plenty of violence, much of it involving militants based in provinces such as South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency — all restive regions in northwest Pakistan, along its border with Afghanistan.
It is the home base the TTP, an organization that has sought to force its conservative version of Islam in Pakistan. They have battled Pakistani troops and, on a number of occasions, attacked civilians as well.
Schoolchildren have been among their targets. The most notable among them was Malala Yousafzai, who was singled out by Taliban militants October 9, 2012, and shot while riding from home. The teenage girl survived and, last week, became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote education and girls rights in Pakistan and beyond.
And Peshawar, an ancient city of more than 3 million people tucked right up against the Khyber Pass, has often found itself in the center of it all. Militants have repeatedly targeted Peshawar in response to Pakistani military offensives, like a 2009 truck bombing of a popular marketplace frequented by women and children that killed more than 100 people.
Yousafzai said Tuesday she was “heartbroken by this (latest) senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar.”
“Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this,” the 16-year-old said.
Taliban: Revenge for killing of tribesmen
Still, even by Pakistan and the Taliban’s gruesome standards, Tuesday’s attack may be the most abominable yet.
This is the deadliest incident inside Pakistan since October 2007, when about 139 Pakistanis died and more than 250 others were wounded in an attack near a procession for exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.
As recently as last spring, the Pakistan Taliban — a group closely affiliated with the Taliban in Afghanistan and whose members swear allegiance to the Afghan group’s leader, Mullah Omar — and the Pakistani government were involved in peace talks. The government released 19 Taliban noncombatants in a goodwill gesture.
But talks broke down under a wave of attacks by the Taliban and mounting political pressure to bring the violence under control.
In September 2013, choir members and children attending Sunday school were among 81 people killed in a suicide bombing at the Protestant All Saints Church of Pakistan. A splinter group of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the church attack, blaming the U.S. program of drone strikes in tribal areas of the country.
And for the past few months, the Pakistani military has been conducting a ground offensive aimed at clearing out militants. The campaign has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The military offensive in the region has spurred deadly retaliations.
Khurrassani, the Pakistan Taliban spokesman, told CNN that the latest attack was revenge for the killing of hundreds of innocent tribesmen during repeated army operations in provinces including South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.
The TTP spokesman challenged that ordinary citizens were targeted, saying that five army vehicles are routinely stationed at the school.
“We are facing such heavy nights in routine,” Khurrassani said, rationalizing the siege shortly before it ended. “Today, you must face the heavy night.”
By all standards, the attack on the Army Public School and Degree College is historic — not just for Pakistan, but for the entire world. It’s the bloodiest on a school since armed Chechen rebels took about 1,200 children and adults hostage in Beslan in 2004, a siege that ended with at least 334 people killed.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the news “deeply shocking,” saying “it’s horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.” He was among a number of officials around the world — including from the president of India, Pakistan’s longtime rival — who condemned the violence.
“By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack,” U.S. President Barack Obama said, “terrorists have once again shown their depravity.”