In an attack that provoked horror and fierce international condemnation, seven members of Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, dressed in army uniform and wearing suicide vests, stormed the Army Public School mid-morning on Tuesday and began their shooting spree.
Firefights with Pakistan commandos continued for about eight hours before the school was cleared. Pakistani security forces said some of the attackers had been killed by commandos and others had blown themselves up.
Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for a ferocious army offensive – named Zarb-e-Azb – that has been underway in tribal areas since the summer and has left an estimated 1,000 militants dead and tens of thousands of people displaced.
“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Mohammed Umar Khurasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
The Taliban claimed it had spared the youngest pupils but survivors said the shooting had been indiscriminate.
The danger over the coming weeks and months is of spiralling violence in an already volatile region as the Pakistan military, which has a well-founded reputation for ruthlessness, seeks revenge for the dead children of military personnel.
The first indication that the response will be harsh came when Pakistan’s chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, in a tweet, said “massive air strikes” had been carried out against targets in the Khyber region, a tribal agency adjacent to Peshawar.
The army chief’s first public remarks after the attack reflected rising anger. “These terrorists have struck the heart of the nation,” he said. “But our resolve to tackle this menace has gotten a new lease of life. We will pursue these monsters and their facilitators until they are eliminated for good.”
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, vowed a military offensive that began in the summer to eradicate Taliban havens in North Waziristan, a semi-autonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan, would continue “until terrorism is rooted from our land”.
The government declared three days of national mourning. Around the country musicians cancelled concerts, cinemas dropped films and business owners said shops would remain closed.
Throughout the day agonising details of the attack emerged from Peshawar’s usually unremarkable military Cantonment area. The seven attackers gained entrance to the school over a wall shared with a graveyard and then began shooting at random, searching out children hiding beneath desks and benches. The school roll was over 1,000; its pupils aged between five and 18. The army said 960 students and staff survived.
Pakistan has witnessed many terrorist incidents over the last decade but the deaths of so many children produced an outcry both at home and internationally.
Barack Obama described the attack as heinous, while his secretary of state John Kerry described it as “gut-wrenching” and “an unspeakable horror”. Echoing the Pakistan government and military, Kerry said: “The perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
David Cameron described it as a dark day for humanity. “There is not a belief system in the world that can justify this appalling act,” the prime minister said.
The massacre saw regional rivals join to express sympathy and support for the victims. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, described the attack as cowardly, adding: “It is a senseless act of unspeakable brutality that has claimed lives of the most innocent of human beings – young children in their school.”
The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, who is engaged in a struggle of his own with the Afghan Taliban, also condemned the massacre, saying “the killing of innocent children is contrary to Islam”.
The Nobel peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistan Taliban two years ago for speaking out in favour of education for girls, said: “I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us. Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this.”
The united front in the region is unlikely to last long before there is a return to mutual suspicion between the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indian governments. Pakistan’s intelligence agency has long played a double-game, with elements at times supporting the Afghanistan Taliban. Adding to the dangerous mix are US drone strikes in Fata, the semi-autonomous region of north-western Pakistan.
The stepping-up of military operations in the Pakistan tribal areas looks as if it will coincide with the Afghanistan government confronting the challenge of the Afghanistan Taliban following the full withdrawal of all US and allied combat troops at the end of the month.
Tehrik-e-Taliban is allied to the Afghanistan Taliban, sharing similar aims regarding the establishment of sharia law and opposition to the US but, unlike the Afghanistan Taliban, regards the Pakistan government as a target.
The main Pakistan opposition leader, Imran Khan, announced he was cancelling national protests planned for Thursday. Khan is a leading critic of army behaviour in the tribal areas and has called in the past for negotiations rather than fighting.