Pakistan is observing a day of mourning after Islamic militants stormed a university, gunning down students and teachers and spreading terror before the four gunmen were killed by the military.
The death toll from the assault at Bacha Khan University in the town of Charsadda, near Peshawar, rose to 21 after another student died in hospital, according to police official Tariq Khan.
Flags on official buildings and parliament are flying at half-mast and police have stepped up security at schools and educational centres across the country.
The attack began shortly after the Bacha Khan University opened for classes in the town of Charsadda, some 30km outside Peshawar, said deputy commissioner Tahir Zafar.
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. Four gunmen were killed.
The crying father of a female student, Krishma, told reporters: “My daughter called me when the attack started and I rushed to the university. Now her mobile is switched off. I have searched in every hospital and not found her.”
Several explosions were heard during battles between the suspected Islamic terrorists and security forces as terrified students locked themselves in rooms and hid under desks.
“Multiple people” were killed by the attackers, a teacher who had escaped the campus said.
Several sources said that a professor in the chemistry department was shot dead.
At least 50 people were injured in the attack and taken to nearby hospitals, according to media reports.
The militants reportedly scaled a back wall to enter the campus under the cover of thick fog.
Pakistani special forces commandos later stormed the campus, some entering by rope from helicopters.
Eighteen bodies have reportedly been taken to the district headquarters in Charsada, with more than 60 injured taken to different hospitals.
The attackers were later contained inside two university blocks, where the troops killed them, the army said.
Pakistan’s 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,” Mr Sharif said.
A Taliban leader, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Mansoor, who was the mastermind behind the Peshawar school attack, said a four-man Taliban team carried out the assault. He said it was in revenge for the scores of militants that the Pakistani security forces have killed in recent months.
However, a spokesman for the main Taliban faction in Pakistan disowned the group behind the attack, describing the assault as “un-Islamic”.
The Bacha Khan University is named after the founder of a liberal, anti-Taliban political party. The Pakistani Taliban has in the past targeted the party for its anti-militant policies.
A military spokesman said that the terrorists gave stiff resistance to security forces.
It is understood that eight to 10 terrorists were inside the school. They were aged between 18 and 25, wearing civilian clothes and had their faces covered.
The town of Charsadda is about 30km from the mountain peaks lining the frontier with Afghanistan.
It is also home to the Dar ul-Uloom Islamic Madrassah.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was quoted on the website of the ‘Daily Pakistan’ as saying: “We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland.”
Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricket star turned politician, condemned the attack on the university.
Student Sabir Khan, who was evacuated from the university, said: “The gunmen entered from the back gate of the university and started opening doors and firing indiscriminately.”
Another witness, Zahoor Rashid, said: “We were in the classroom when suddenly we heard firing.”
Shabir Khan, a lecturer in the English department, said he was about to leave for the department when firing began, Reuters reported.
“Most of the students and staff were in classes when the firing began,” Khan said. “I have no idea about what’s going on but I heard one security official talking on the phone to someone and he said many people had been killed and injured.”
Students were evacuated from classes as the gunfire continued. The university was busier than normal as there were 600 guests present for a literary event honouring Bacha Khan, the Pashtun leader after whom the institution is named. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
A breakaway Taliban faction took responsibility for the university attack on Wednesday, which raised grim echoes of the 2014 school massacre that left 150 dead, 144 of them children.