PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Taliban massacre that killed 148 people – mostly children – at a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan left a scene of devastation and carnage as the nation mourned and mass funerals for the victims got underway Wednesday.
The attack Tuesday at the Army Public School and College in the city of Peshawar was the deadliest slaughter of innocents in the country and horrified a nation already weary of unending terrorist assaults.
Blood was pooled on the floor and the stairs as media were allowed inside the school a day after the attack. Broken window glass, door frames, torn notebooks, pieces of clothing and children’s shoes were scattered about. A pair of child’s eyeglasses lay broken on the ground.
Prayer vigils were held across the nation and in other schools, students spoke of their shock at the brutal slaying in Peshawar, where seven Taliban gunmen, explosives strapped to their bodies, scaled a back wall using a ladder to get into the in the morning hours on Tuesday.
Students were gunned down and some of the female teachers were burned alive. Army commandos fought the Taliban in a day-long battle until the school was cleared and the attackers dead.
After the attackers entered the school, they made their way into the main auditorium where many students had gathered for an event, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa told reporters during the tour. The militants then made their way to the hall’s stage and started shooting at random.
As students tried to flee for the doors, they were gunned down. The military later recovered about 100 bodies from the auditorium alone, according to the spokesman.
“This is not a human act,” Bajwa said. “This is a national tragedy.”
The government declared a three-day mourning period, starting Wednesday. Some of the critically wounded adults – the school staff – died overnight, said Bajwa, and authorities raised the overall death toll to 148. The number of students killed remained at 132. Another 121 students and three staff members were wounded in the assault.
The body of the school principal, Tahira Qazi, was retrieved overnight from the debris. Qazi was inside her office when the militants made their way into the administration building, some 20 meters (yards) from the auditorium. She ran and locked herself into the bathroom but the attackers threw a grenade inside, through a vent, and killed her, Bajwa said.
Several funerals were also held overnight, but most of the victims were to be buried Wednesday.
“They finished in minutes what I had lived my whole life for, my son,” said laborer Akhtar Hussain, tears streaming down his face as he buried his 14-year-old, Fahad. He said he had worked for years in Dubai to earn a livelihood for his children.
“That innocent one is now gone in the grave, and I can’t wait to join him, I can’t live anymore,” he wailed, banging his fists against his head.
The Taliban said the attack was revenge for a military offensive against their safe havens in the northwest, along the border with Afghanistan, which began in June. Analysts said the school siege showed that even diminished, the militant group still could inflict horrific carnage.
The attack drew swift condemnation from around the world. President Barack Obama said the “terrorists have once again showed their depravity.”
Pakistan’s teenage Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai – herself a survivor of a Taliban shooting – said she was “heartbroken” by the bloodshed.
Even Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan decried the killing spree, calling it “un-Islamic.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to step up the campaign that – along with U.S. drone strikes – has targeted the militants.
“We must not forget these scenes,” Sharif said Wednesday at a top-level meeting in Peshawar. “The way they left bullet holes in the bodies of innocent kids, the way they tore apart their faces with bullets.”
Sharif said he spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani late Tuesday to discuss how both countries could do more to fight terrorism. The two agreed to launch fresh operations on their respective sides of the border, he said, and pledged to “clean this region from terrorism.”
Pakistan has in the past has criticized Afghanistan for what it said was a failure to take action against militants on their side of the border, specifically faulting Kabul for allegedly not helping when Pakistan launched the North Waziristan operation in June. Afghanistan has also repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring militants in its tribal regions.
But Bajwa, the army spokesman, said that after the Peshawar massacre, Islamabad is “hoping that there will be a strong action, a corresponding action from the Afghanistan side, from across the border, in the coming days.”
In neighboring India, which has long accused Pakistan of supporting anti-India guerrillas, schools on Wednesday observed two minutes of silence for the Peshawar victims at the urging of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who called the attack “a senseless act of unspeakable brutality.”
In an email on Wednesday, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammad Khurasani claimed the attack was justified because the Pakistani army has allegedly long been killing innocent children and families of their fighters.
He vowed more such militant attacks and told Pakistani civilians to detach themselves from all military institution.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Peshawar, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Tim Sullivan in New Delhi contributed to this report.