Gunmen on Wednesday attacked the Bacha Khan University in Pakistan as it prepared to host a poetry recital in the 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.
However, later in the day, official Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khorasani issued a written statement disassociating the militants from the 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.
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 overthrown by U.S.-backed military action in 2001.
By afternoon on Wednesday, the Pakistani military said all four gunmen had been killed. “The operation is over and the university has been cleared,” Pakistan army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said.
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 they carried guns and grenades.
Rumours 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,” he said.
Several schools had closed early at the weekend around Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after rumours circulated of a possible attack. The area has been on edge since the December 2014 massacre by six gunmen in Peshawar.
Pakistan PM’s statement
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 withAfghanistan.
“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.