PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) – Pakistan Wednesday began three days of mourning for the 132 children and nine school staff massacred by the Taleban in the country’s deadliest ever terror attack, as the world united in revulsion.
Across the country many schools closed as a mark of respect, while those that opened held special prayers for the 141 killed in Tuesday’s assault on an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
A group of heavily armed militants went from room to room at the school during an eight-hour killing spree claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) that sparked condemnation worldwide.
Schools, colleges, offices and markets were closed across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern province of which Peshawar is the capital and which has suffered the worst of the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency.
Across the border in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put aside acrimony with Pakistan to ask schools to observe two minutes’ silence to honour the dead.
Funerals for the victims, many of whose bodies were pulled from the school still wearing their smart green uniforms drenched in blood, began late on Tuesday and the rest will be carried out on Wednesday.
An AFP reporter saw soldiers posted on the roof of the school on Wednesday and a regular flow of military vehicles in and out.
Eyewitnesses said the six attackers came in a white van and torched their vehicle before opening fire to scare away onlookers and clambering over a wall to enter the school.
“One of them poured petrol over the vehicle and then set it alight. Then they opened fire in the streets and me along with another person ran away to save our life,” witness Zabihullah, 12, told AFP.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who described the attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages”, is due to chair a meeting of political parties in Peshawar to discuss a response to the tragedy.
The government and military have reaffirmed their determination to defeat a group that has killed thousands since it began its insurgency in 2007.
But Pakistani media noted that previous terror attacks had been hailed as watershed moments and drawn promises of action, only to be followed by more violence.
“Vows to crush militancy in the aftermath of a massive attack are quite meaningless,” leading English daily Dawn said in an editorial.
“Military operations amount to little more than firefighting unless there’s an attempt to attack the ideological roots of militancy.”
For the past six months the military has been waging a major offensive against strongholds of the TTP and other militants in the North Waziristan tribal area, close to Peshawar.
The operation has killed more than 1,600 suspected militants and the army has hailed it as a success, saying it has caused serious disruption to insurgents’ infrastructure. But the fear of reprisal attacks has been ever-present.
TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani claimed the school attack as revenge for the army operation, saying they wanted the army to “feel the pain” they had felt at losing loved ones.
Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, herself shot by the Taleban in 2012, said she was “heartbroken” by “the senseless and cold-blooded” killings.
US President Barack Obama condemned the attack as “heinous” and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered his own sympathy to Pakistan, as his government deals with the fallout from a cafe siege by an extremist gunman.
Teenage survivor Shahrukh Khan, who ducked below his desk when gunmen burst into their room, described playing dead after being shot in both legs – stuffing his tie into his mouth to stifle his screams of pain.
“I saw a pair of big black boots coming towards me, this guy was probably hunting for students hiding beneath the benches,” the 16-year-old told AFP from the trauma ward of the city’s Lady Reading Hospital.
“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,” he said.
“My body was shivering. I saw death so close and I will never forget the black boots approaching me – I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.”
There were around 500 students in the school when the attack started, and the army’s chief spokesman General Asim Bajwa said the attackers, equipped with ammunition and food to last “days”, only wanted to kill.