Pakistani students come out from the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda.
CHARSADDA, PESHAWAR: At least 21 people were massacred on Wednesday by heavily-armed “Taliban suicide attackers” who stormed a prestigious university here in restive northwestern Pakistan and opened indiscriminate fire, in a grim reminder of the Peshawar army school attack in 2014.
The gunmen entered the Bacha Khan University named after iconic leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan alias Baacha Khan in Charsadda, some 50km southwest of Peshawar in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa province, and opened fire on students and teachers in classrooms and hostels, police said.
Four militants were also killed as security forces retaliated, bringing the death toll to 25 in the grisly attack.
The militants used the cover of thick, wintry fog to scaled the walls of the university before entering buildings.
The attack stirred grim echoes of the horrific 2014 Peshawar school attack that killed more than 150 people, mostly children, and shocked the nation. It also prompted the Pakistani prime minister to pledge the country will wipe out the ‘menace of terrorism.’ Police said four attackers were also killed.
The violence nevertheless shows that 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 the city of Charsadda.
Many of the dead were apparently shot in the head execution-style, TV footage showed.
Wednesday’s attack began shortly after the Bacha Khan University opened for classes, deputy commissioner Tahir Zafar said.
As police and soldiers rushed to the campus, the attackers traded gunfire with the troops and several explosions were heard from the area of the university. The attackers were later contained inside two university blocks where the troops killed four attackers, the army said.
A chemistry professor and a student were among those killed, said Zafar, adding that it was not initially clear how many attackers managed to penetrate the campus. Television footage showed heavy military presence at the university, troops rushing in and people fleeing. Ambulances were at the scene and the wounded were taken to hospital.
The attackers entered the university compound by climbing over back walls and shooting at a security guard before they made their way to the administration building and the male students’ dorms, police official Saeed Khan Wazir said.
A witness, botany teacher Mohammad Ishtiaq, said he jumped out from the second floor of the building when he heard gunshots and broke his leg. Two attackers were on first floor and three on the ground floor, he said, adding that they were using automatic assault rifles. The students ran in different directions, he said.
“I locked myself in a washroom,” he said. “I jumped out when I saw one of the attackers coming toward me and shooting straight ahead of him.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to fight to the end and destroy the Taliban and other militants.
“We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland,” Sharif said in a statement.
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.
However, later in the day, official Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khorasani issued a written statement disassociating the militants from attack, calling it un-Islamic.
“Youth who are studying in non-military institutions, we consider them as builders of the future nation and we consider their safety and protection our duty,” the statement said.
The reason for the conflicting claims was not immediately clear. While the Taliban leadership is fractured, Mansoor is believed to remain loyal to central leader Mullah Fazlullah.
Pak army chief visits campus
Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif visited the campus and a town hospital where the wounded were brought to.
Pakistan’s northwest and its lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan is a highly volatile region. Pakistani forces have been carrying out a major operation against the Taliban and other militants there since 2014.
Last month, as the country marked the first anniversary of the Peshawar school attack, the military claimed “phenomenal successes” in the war and said it has killed around 3,500 insurgents since launching the operation.
Though authorities say overall violence has declined since the wide-ranging military offensive was launched in North Waziristan, the Taliban still manage to carry out major attacks.
The Peshawar school attack horrified the country and led the government to lift a 2008 moratorium on the death penalty. Pakistan hanged four militants last month who were sentenced to death over the attack.