WEB DESK: Pakistan observed a day of national mourning Thursday for the 21 people killed when heavily armed gunmen stormed a university in the troubled northwest, exposing the failings in a national crackdown on extremism.
Flags will fly at half-mast on all government buildings inside and outside the country, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said, while a prayer ceremony will be held in the capital Islamabad.
Sharif has vowed a “ruthless” response to the massacre and ordered security forces to hunt those behind Wednesday’s attack on the Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, where students were targeted with grenades and automatic weapons.
The assault bore a chilling resemblance to a 2014 massacre at a school in nearby Peshawar which shocked the nation and prompted an escalation of a national crackdown on extremism.
The militants, using the cover of thick, wintry fog, scaled the walls of the university on Wednesday morning before entering buildings and opening fire on students and teachers in classrooms and hostels, police said.
“They came from behind and there was a big commotion,” an unnamed male student told a news channel from a hospital bed in Charsadda’s District Hospital. “We were told by teachers to leave immediately. Some people hid in bathrooms.”
Thirty five of the wounded remain in hospital, a local police official said late on Wednesday.
Security forces killed all four gunmen in the university attack, which was claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction but branded “un-Islamic” by the umbrella group’s leadership, who also vowed to hunt down those responsible.
Among those who died was assistant chemistry professor Syed Hamid Husain who was lauded for challenging the gunmen and firing at them with his pistol while his terrified students raced for cover.
The majority of victims were laid to rest late Wednesday according to Muslim tradition, including Husain who was buried in his home village of Swabi as those who knew him paid tribute.
“He would always help the students and he was the one who knew all their secrets because they would share all their problems with him,” 22-year-old geology student Waqar Ali told AFP. “He was referred to by students as ‘The Protector’.”
The majority of the student victims died at a hostel for young men where security forces also cornered the four attackers.
The gunmen attacked as the university prepared to host a poetry recital on Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the death anniversary of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a popular ethnic Pashtun independence activist after whom the university is named.
Vice Chancellor Fazal Rahim told reporters that the university teaches over 3,000 students and was hosting an additional 600 visitors for the poetry recital.
Umar Mansoor, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander involved in the December 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar, claimed responsibility for the Charsadda assault and said it involved four of his men.
He told Reuters by telephone the university was targeted because it was a government institution that supported the army.
However, later in the day, official Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khorasani issued a written statement disassociating the militants from the attack, calling it un-Islamic.
“Youth who are studying in non-military institutions, we consider them as builders of the future nation and we consider their safety and protection our duty,” the statement said.
The reason for the conflicting claims was not immediately clear. While the Taliban leadership is fractured, Mansoor is believed to remain loyal to central leader Mullah Fazlullah.
The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They are loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban who ruled most of Afghanistan until they were overthrown by U.S.-backed military action in 2001.
By afternoon on Wednesday, the military said all four gunmen had been killed.
“The operation is over and the university has been cleared,” Pakistan army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said.
Pools of blood and overturned furniture could be seen inside the hostel, while in a back alley outside, an old wooden plaque on the wall proclaimed: “Heroes die young”.
Meanwhile the bodies of militants, bloodied and with their clothes torn, were unceremoniously dumped on the floor of a truck before being taken away from the scene.
The assault brought memories rushing back of the 2014 atrocity, in which gunmen from the same Taliban faction slaughtered more than 150 people at an army-run school in Peshawar on December 16 that year.
The majority of those victims were children, and their relatives held a candlelight vigil in Peshawar late Wednesday for those slain in the latest attack.
The strike on the army school united Pakistanis, already scarred by a decade of assaults, in shock and outrage and prompted a government and military-led crackdown on extremism.
Security palpably improved in 2015, which saw the least number of deaths from militant violence since the formation of the Pakistani Taliban in 2007 — but critics have repeatedly warned the government is not taking long-term steps to tackle the underlying scourge of extremism.
“We understand their pain,” Ajun Khan, who lost his only son Asfand in the attack on the Army Public School, told AFP of the survivors of Wednesday’s assault.
“We are not safe, even parents do not feel safe,” he said.
The Bacha Khan attack, which Amnesty International said could be branded a war crime, earned global condemnation including from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and neighbouring India.
“It is particularly appalling that these terrorists continue to attack educational institutions, targeting Pakistan’s future generations,” said a US State department spokesman.
RUMORS OF ATTACK
Television footage showed military vehicles packed with soldiers driving into the campus as helicopters buzzed overhead and ambulances lined up outside the main gate while anxious parents consoled each other.
Shabir Khan, a lecturer in the English department, said he was about to leave his university housing for the department when firing began.
“Most of the students and staff were in classes when the firing began,” Khan said.
Several schools had closed early at the weekend around Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after rumors circulated of a possible attack.
The area has been on edge since the December 2014 massacre by six gunmen in Peshawar.
Pakistan, which has suffered from years of jihadist militant violence, has killed and arrested hundreds of suspected militants under a major crackdown launched afterwards.
The Peshawar school attack was seen as having hardened Pakistan’s resolve to fight militants along its lawless border with Afghanistan.
“We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement after Wednesday’s attack.