More than 140 people, most of them children, were killed when Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in the northern Pakistan city of Peshawar early Tuesday, in the bloodiest attack in the country in years. Police officials confirmed that six attackers were killed in the ensuing military raid.
"The combat operation is over. The security personnel are carrying out a clearance operation, and hopefully they will clear the building in a while," police official Abdullah Khan told Agence France-Presse. "Bodies of six terrorists have been found in the building."
Chief army spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa said that explosive devices planted in school buildings were slowing clearance efforts and that special forces soldiers had rescued more than a dozen staffers and students. The military said that 132 children and nine staff members were killed. But those numbers could rise, the military warned.
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s spokesman, Muhammad Khorasani, said the attack was retaliation for an ongoing Pakistan Army operation against the TTP and its allies in the North Waziristan tribal area.
"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," he said. "We want them to feel the pain." He said six suicide bombers were sent to the school with orders to allow the youngest students to leave and to kill the rest.
About 1,100 students were believed to have been inside the school when the assault occurred. About 121 students were wounded, as were three staff members and seven Pakistani commandos. The school is on the edge of a military cantonment in Peshawar, but most of the students are civilian.
Earlier, troops surrounded the building during a rescue operation. Hours into the siege, three explosions and heavy gunfire were heard inside the school.
Outside, as helicopters flew overhead, police struggled to hold back distraught parents who were trying to break past a security cordon and get into the school.
It was not immediately clear whether some or all of the casualties were killed by the gunmen or in the ensuing battle with Pakistani security forces trying to gain control of the building.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack and said he was on his way to Peshawar. "This is a national tragedy unleashed by savages. These were my kids," he said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement condemning the attack. "By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity," the statement read.
The assault began in the morning hours, with an initial blast as the attackers hit the school, followed by a second explosion. Gunmen entered the school — which has students in grades 1 through 10 — and began shooting at random, said police officer Javed Khan.
Outside the school, shooting was initially heard, and there were reports of as many as three explosions. Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and exchanged fire with the gunmen, Khan said. Small-arms fire was heard during the raid as security forces tried to retake the school. Pakistani television showed soldiers surrounding the area and pushing people back.
"We were standing outside the school, and firing suddenly started, and there was chaos everywhere and the screams of children and teachers," said Jamshed Khan, a school bus driver.
Shaukat Yousafzai, the provincial health minister, said a school function was taking place in the senior section of the school when an explosion went off. "This is a very saddening event, and these are our children, the children of Pakistan," he said. "By killing these children, I am not sure what service these terrorists have done to Islam."
Abdullah Jamal, a student who was shot in the leg, said that he was with a group of eighth, ninth and 10th graders who were getting first-aid training with a team of Pakistani army medics when the violence began.
When the shooting started, Jamal said, nobody knew at first what was going on. "Then I saw children falling down who were crying and screaming. I also fell down. I learned later that I have got a bullet," he said from his hospital bed.
The Pakistani military began Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the TTP and its allies on June 15 and says it has so far retaken large areas of territory from the group, killing more than 1,270 people. The army is also carrying out a military operation in Khyber Agency, which borders Peshawar, where it says it has killed at least 179 fighters.
The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to step up attacks in response to the army operation. They have targeted security forces, checkpoints, military bases and airports, but attacks on civilian targets with no logistical significance have been relatively rare.
Al Jazeera and wire services