NEW: Children "are dying on the frontline in the war against terror," Pakistan's defense minister says
NEW: The death toll has climbed to 145 people, included 132 children and the school's principal
NEW: Attackers gunned down students taking an exam in an auditorium, military spokesman says
Attack was on a school mostly for soldiers' children; many of the dead between 12 and 16
“‘God is great,’” the Taliban militants shouted as they roared through the hallways of a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Then, 14-year-old student Ahmed Faraz recalled, one of them took a harsher tone.
” ‘A lot of the children are under the benches,’ ” a Pakistani Taliban 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 145 people – 132 children, 10 school staff members and three soldiers – were dead, military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa said. More than 100 were injured, many with gunshot wounds, according to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani.
The death toll does not include the terrorists who attacked the school, bursting into an auditorium where a large number of students were taking an exam and gunning down many of them within minutes, Bajwa said.
“They started shooting indiscriminately,” Bajwa said, “and that’s where maximum damage was caused.”
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurrassani said the militants scaled the school’s walls around 10 a.m. (midnight ET), intent on killing older students there.
The Taliban had “300 to 400 people … under their custody” at one point, said Khurrassani, whose group is called Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. But Bajwa said there was no hostage situation, as the attackers’ focus was shooting to kill rather than taking captives.
They were eventually met by Pakistani troops who pushed through the complex building by building, room by room. By 4 p.m., they’d confined the attackers to four buildings. A few hours later, all the militants – seven of them, according to Bajwa – were dead.
Pakistani authorities spent Tuesday night 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 worsen the carnage.
As they searched, they discovered that the school’s principal was among the terrorists’ victims.
The attack drew sharp condemnation from top Pakistani officials, who vowed that the country wouldn’t stop its war against the Taliban.
“We are undeterred. … We will not back off,” Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told CNN.
But he said the ambush at the school is another example of how great his nation’s sacrifices have been in fighting that’s raged for more than a decade.
“Even the children are dying on the frontline in the war against terror,” he said. “The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry. … It’s a very, very tragic day.”
Minister: Most of the dead were 12 to 16 years old
On a typical day, the Army Public School and Degree College is home to about 1,100 students and staff, most of them sons and daughters of army personnel from around Peshawar, though others attend as well.
Their nightmare began in late morning, when a car exploded behind the school. Pakistani education minister Muhammad Baligh Ur Rehman explained to CNN that the blast was a ruse, meant to divert the attention of the school’s security guards.
Gunmen got over the walls and walked through where students in grades 8, 9 and 10 have classes and fired randomly, said Dr. Aamir Bilal of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, citing students. They came in with enough ammunition and other supplies to last for days and were not expecting to come out alive, according to a Pakistani military official.
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.