Updated at 10 a.m. Eastern time: The deadly siege of the school in northwest Pakistan ended Tuesday evening local time with all the Taliban militants responsible killed. CNN reports at least 130 people were killed.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, which are fighting to overthrow the government and create a strict Islamic state, claimed responsibility in a phone call to media. He said it was in retaliation for the military’s offensive against militants in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas.
The horrific attack began around 10 a.m. Tuesday local time in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province that sits about 90 miles northwest of Islamabad. A police officer told The Associated Press that about a half-dozen gunmen entered Army Public School and Degree College and began shooting at random. Mushtaq Ghani, the information minister for the province, told reporters that most of the 126 dead were children and teenagers.
Pervez Khattak, chief minister of the province, told reporters that the militants were wearing the uniforms of a paramilitary force and were armed with suicide vests.
Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and exchanged fire with the attackers. By Tuesday afternoon, the military said it had pushed the gunmen to four blocks of the school and killed four, according to CNN.
The New York Times cited initial reports that the gunmen had taken dozens of students hostage. Some students managed to escape the school compound, the local news media reported.
Ahsam Mukhtar, a student at the school, said he was in a classroom when the assault started, according to The Washington Post.
“Our teacher told us to lie on the ground, but the firing went on and it was very loud.” Mr. Mukhtar said in a televised interview. “Then the Army came and took us out of the classrooms. In the corridor, I saw dead bodies with bullet injuries in the head. Some had wounds in their arms. I also saw our mathematics teacher lying injured on the floor.”
"I can't stay back in Islamabad. This is a national tragedy unleashed by savages. These were my kids," he said in a statement. "This is my loss. This is the nation's loss.”
Drone operations by the Pakistani military and United States in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan have long spurred deadly retaliation from the Taliban – known as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP – based in the region. As the Times reports:
Pakistani military carried out an offensive, “Operation Zab-e-Azb,” in June and have claimed to have cleared 90 percent of the restive region that has long been a redoubt of local and foreign militants.
While the Taliban have often struck security forces, checkpoints, and military bases, Reuters reports, “attacks on civilian targets with no logistical significance are relatively rare.”
Still, CNN notes that schoolchildren have previously been targeted, most notably Nobel Peace Prizewinner Malala Yousafzai, the outspoken teen whom they singled out and shot in 2012. But even by the group's violent standards, Tuesday's attack was particularly devastating, CNN reports:
This is the deadliest incident inside Pakistan since October 2007, when about 139 Pakistanis died and more than 250 others were wounded in an attack near a procession for exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, according to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government were held as recently as last spring, but fell apart amid a wave of attacks by the militants that intensified political pressure to quell the violence.