Suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a teeming university campus in Pakistan’s volatile northwest on Wednesday, killing 21 people, including a chemistry professor who tried to protect his students by firing at the militants.
A security official said the death toll could rise as the army cleared out student hostels and classrooms at Bacha Khan University at Charsadda, around 50km from Peshawar, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Former cricket hero Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf Party, which rules the province, initially said about 25 people were killed and 50 others wounded in the attack. The death toll was later revised by police officials to 21.
The brazen attack coincided with the death anniversary of renowned Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or Bacha Khan, the apostle of peace after whom the varsity is named.
The assault was claimed by a Taliban faction led by Umar Mansoor, the mastermind of the 2014 attack on an army-run school in Peshawar that killed nearly 150 people. “Our four suicide attackers carried out the attack on Bacha Khan University today,” said Mansoor.
But it was branded “un-Islamic” by the leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – a divergence that signalled continued infighting in the Taliban at a time when the Islamic State is trying to gain a foothold in the region by recruiting disaffected fighters.
The TTP’s central leadership also denied any involvement in the attack.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to fight to the end and destroy “the menace of terrorism” while his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi condemned the attack.
“Strongly condemn the terror attack at Bacha Khan University in Pakistan. Condolences to families of the deceased. Prayers with the injured,” Modi tweeted.
Students spoke of a heroic teacher, Syed Hamid Husain, fighting back against the intruders, shooting at them with his pistol to protect his wards.
Geology student Zahoor Ahmed said the chemistry lecturer had warned him not to leave the building after the first shots were fired. “He was holding a pistol in his hand,” he said.
“Then I saw a bullet hit him. I saw two militants were firing. I ran inside and then managed to flee by jumping over the back wall.”
Witnesses said the attack started at around 8am when the militants used the cover of thick, wintry fog to scale walls and enter the campus. The gunmen first entered the dean’s office and then spread out to classes and hostels.
Regional police chief Saeed Wazir said most of the student victims were shot dead at a hostel for boys.
Military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa said four attackers were killed by troops, including two who were shot by snipers. Commandoes dropped into the campus by helicopters carried out an operation lasting several hours to clear all blocks of the campus.
Following the attack on the army-run school in December 2014, the Pakistan government framed a National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism, created special military courts to deal with terrorism-related offences and executed scores of people convicted in terrorism cases.
Observers said Wednesday’s attack raised questions about the efficacy of the NAP and the Taliban’s ability to strike almost at will despite the military’s claims of major successes in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, an offensive against all militant groups active in northwest Pakistan.
With inputs from Agencies