Taliban militants stormed a university in volatile northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday (20/01), killing at least 19 people and wounding dozens a little more than a year after the massacre of 134 students at a school in the area, officials said.
The attack showed the Islamist militants retain the ability to launch attacks, despite a country-wide anti-terrorism crackdown and a military campaign against their strongholds along the lawless border with Afghanistan.
A security official said the death toll could rise to as high as 40 at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The army said it had concluded operations to clear the campus six hours after the attack began and that four gunmen were dead.
A spokesman for rescue workers, Bilal Ahmad Faizi, said 19 bodies had been recovered including students, guards, policemen and at least one teacher, named by media as chemistry professor Syed Hamid Husain.
Many of the dead were apparently shot in the head execution-style, TV footage showed.
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.
Students told media they saw several young men wielding AK-47 guns storming the university housing where many students were sleeping.
"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."
TALIBAN CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY
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.
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 toppled by a U.S.-backed military action in 2001.
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 told Reuters.
A security official close to the operation said he had seen the four gunmen's bodies riddled with bullets. He said none of the gunmen was wearing a suicide vest but carried guns and grenades.
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. "I have no idea about what's going on but I heard one security official talking on the phone to someone and said many people had been killed and injured."
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.
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.