By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service
CHARSADDA, PAKISTAN (ANS – Jan. 20, 2016) – A group of militants has stormed a university in north-west Pakistan, killing at least 30 people and leaving dozens injured.
Some reports said that final number of dead could be as high as 40.
According to The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com), the gunmen entered Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, at about 9.30am (4.30am GMT), apparently using the cover of thick morning fog, and opened fire on students and teachers in classrooms and accommodation blocks.
“A gun battle ensued between the attackers and Pakistan security forces, with television footage showing soldiers entering the campus as ambulances lined up outside the main gate and anxious parents consoled each other. After six hours the army said four attackers had been killed and that a clearance operation had ended,” said The Guardian story.
At midday local time a provincial minister said 30 people had died, though unverified reports from witnesses suggested that number could rise. Naseer, a 23-year-old student, said he counted more than 50 bodies and saw gunmen shooting male and female students “without discrimination”. “They were directly shooting at the heads of the students,” he said.
Salman Khan, an operating theatre technician at the Charsadda district hospital, said the critically injured had head and chest wounds. Fifty of the most seriously wounded were moved to the larger Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar, the nearby provincial capital, he said.
The BBC is reporting that one Pakistani Taliban commander said the group had carried out the assault, but its main spokesman denied this.
The group killed 130 students at a school in the city of Peshawar, 30 miles from Charsadda, in 2014.
One survivor, Kamil Khan, a politics and international relations student 20, was shot in both legs in the attack and later was able to speak to the BBC from his hospital bed about the attack.
“I was in the library at the time. We were in a gathering of students, a lot of students were with me,” he said. “I heard four men screaming ‘kill every student, kill them all’. They were very wild. It was a terrible moment of my life.
“The attackers were equipped with hand grenades and AK47-style rifles. They were killing everyone. It was a horrible and wild attack.
“I ran and tried to escape quickly. A bullet hit me, but I don’t know how it happened. When I ran, I fell and stumbled. When I opened my eyes, I was in [the hospital].
“My leg is badly injured. The doctors say I will be all right in two to three months, God willing. My best friend Abdul Majid died, and our staff lecturer of chemistry also. “I can’t tell you, I am feeling extreme rage.
“My family are hurt so much. My grandmother is calling me every hour continuously. We are ruined by this aggression and the situation of the war. I would like to go to a foreign country because our life is like life in hell now. I just want to live in a peaceful country.”
[Interviews by Nalina Eggert and Alison Daye].
Following the deadly attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement: “We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland.”
Teacher shot back
The BBC said that the attackers struck at about 09:30 local time (04:30 GMT), apparently climbing over a back wall under cover of the thick winter fog. Intense gunfire and explosions were heard as security guards fought the attackers.
Students and staff ran to find cover in toilets and examination halls.
One student told television reporters he was in class when he heard gunshots: “We saw three terrorists shouting, ‘God is great!’ and rushing towards the stairs of our department. One student jumped out of the classroom through the window. We never saw him get up.”
Reports say a chemistry lecturer, named by media as Syed Hamid Husain, shot back at the gunmen to allow his students to flee, before he was killed.
Geology student Zahoor Ahmed said the teacher had warned him not to leave the building after the first shots were fired.
“He was holding a pistol in his hand,” he was quoted by AFP news agency as saying. “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.”
The victims – mostly male students – were shot in the head or chest. Seventeen people were injured. At least one security guard also died.
It could have been much worse
M. Ilyas Khan, who is with BBC News in Islamabad, said, “There have been conflicting claims about who could be involved in the attack, a sign of the kaleidoscopic mix of militant networks evolving along the Pakistan-Afghan border region in the north.
“The attack comes amid a sudden spike in militant violence in Pakistan, after a year of relative peace and quiet largely attributed to a 2014 military operation against militant sanctuaries in Waziristan. Questions are now being raised over whether that operation really destroyed the ability of militants to regroup and strike at will.
“The attack is reminiscent of the December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar in which more than 150 people, mostly schoolboys, were killed. But damage to life and property this time has been much less, mainly due to swift action by the local police, but also because of the fact that the university had its own team of more than 50 trained security guards on duty who first confronted the attackers.”
The BBC went on to say that a dense fog that reduced visibility to less than 10m may also have been a factor, as one police officer explained, because it put the attackers at a disadvantage against the university guards who knew the premises better.
Images from inside the university show a pool of blood on the floor of a dormitory and the bodies of two alleged militants lying on a staircase.
A senior Taliban commander, Umar Mansoor, told the media the attack was in response to a military offensive against militant strongholds. He said four suicide attackers had carried out the attack.
However, the group’s main spokesman, Mohammad Khurasani, later told the BBC the Taliban had not been involved. He condemned the attack as “un-Islamic”.
About 3,000 students are enrolled at Bacha Khan, but hundreds of visitors were also expected on Wednesday for a poetry event.
There is a symbolic value attached to Bacha Khan University as it is named after a Pashtun nationalist leader who believed in non-violent struggle, says BBC Urdu’s Asad Ali Chaudry.
The title of Wednesday’s poetry program in his honor was “peace”, he adds.
Just days ago, some schools in Peshawar were closed by the authorities amid reports that militants were planning an attack.
Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), said that his group condemned the terrorist attack, adding, “We mourn the loss of innocent lives and pray for peace and fortitude for the families affected. We are sending our officers to the community to see how we can help and will offer succor to victims irrespective of their faith.
“Sadly despite numerous previous attacks Pakistan’s security forces seem to have progressed little and the nation is as volatile now if not worse, as from the moment they first received UK and US aid and support in tackling terrorism.”
He added: “The Pakistani Government’s failure to control extremism in the country remains a blight on their reputation and is a danger to people across the globe. Sovereignty protection issues have prevented help from foreign nations that could provide essential expertise. Pakistan may want to review this wholly inappropriate position that prevents more direct assistance.”
Photo captions: 1) Scene outside the university after the attacks. 2) Pakistani soldiers fought off the attacks. 3) Security forces told the BBC’s Asif Farooqi that a boys’ hostel on the campus was apparently the target (AFP). 4) Rescue workers with one of the injured. 5) Pakistani Soldier takes a picture of the damage at the university (EPA) 6) Survivor being interview for Pakistan TV. 6) Dan Wooding.
About the writer: Dan Wooding is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He is the author of some 45 books and has two TV programs and one radio show in Southern California, and has reported widely for ANS from all over the world, including in South Asia.
** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net).