Explosions and gunfire rang out as seven armed men attacked the Army Public School on Tuesday morning, in one the bloodiest attacks in Pakistan’s history. Ten staff members were also killed.
Officials told Al Jazeera that all seven attackers were killed in the operation.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Peshawar, said “most of the younger pupils escaped the school, but the senior students were not so lucky”.
The deadly attack triggered shock and outrage across the world. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said it was a “national tragedy”, calling those killed “my children”.
Shell-shocked survivors described the attack as nothing short of mayhem. The attackers came dressed in paramilitary uniforms looking for people to kill.
One survivor, Shahrukh Khan, 16, shot in both legs, said he managed to survive after playing dead.
“The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again,” Khan said from the trauma ward at the Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar.
Muhammad Khorasani, TTP spokesperson, told Al Jazeera the suicide bombers had been given orders to allow the youngest students to leave but to kill the rest.
The attack was in retaliation for an ongoing Pakistan Army operation against the TTP and its allies in the North Waziristan tribal area, Khorasani said.
The TTP said many of their family members had been killed in the campaign, and said the attack on the school was in revenge for those deaths.
“Many TTP members have lost their family members and they have said they want to inflict pain,” Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder said.
“But many ordinary people put their children in military schools because of the relatively higher standard of education, so normal people have been hit as well by this.”
Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa said all the attackers wore suicide vests and carried rations to last for days. He said the gunmen fired indiscriminately, however, and it did not seem they were planning to take hostages.
Analysis: Peshawar school attack
Pakistan has seen tens of thousands of civilians killed in attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies in recent years, but Tuesday’s gun-and-bomb attack on a school in the heart of Peshawar, resulting in the deaths of more than 140 people, mostly children, has left the nation numb.
Tuesday’s attack, which the TTP said in a statement was explicitly “in retaliation against” the military’s ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, can be seen, perhaps, as a sign of the group’s desperation. Unable to hit high-value government or military targets, the TTP has been reduced to targeting a school, one that is only nominally army-affiliated, as a sign of its ability to hit civilian targets.
The school itself is a soft target, with relatively low security, even though it is located in a high-security zone of central Peshawar. But by killing scores of children, the TTP is unlikely to win itself much public support, with the backlash from the attack seeing a marked unity amongst Pakistanis in rejecting this form of violence. The indignation of the Pakistani public at this targeting of children seems also to have overridden any fear the TTP was attempting to sow with such a large-scale strike.
In a country where public support for militancy has often allowed space for the TTP and likeminded groups to operate, this is certainly significant.
The Army Public School had about 1,100 students and teachers present, when the attack started at about 10:30am local time (05:00 GMT), military officials said.
A heavy contingent of security forces arrived at the school shortly after the attack began and launched the rescue operation. The army said in a statement that many hostages had been evacuated but did not say how many.
The Pakistani military began Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the TTP and its allies on June 15, and says that it has so far retaken large areas of territory from the group, and killed more than 1,270 of them.
The army is also carrying out a military operation in Khyber Agency, which borders Peshawar, where it says it has killed at least 179 fighters.
“This is a soft target. No one would expect a school to be attacked and children would be involved,” our correspondent said.
“This will only strengthen the public’s resolve to carry on supporting the army.”