CHARSADDA, Pakistan (AFP) — At least 21 people were killed in a Taliban assault on a university in Pakistan Wednesday, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed.
The number of dead climbed rapidly after armed men stormed the Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the city of Peshawar, in the latest outrage to hit the militant-infested region.
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Police, soldiers and special forces swarmed the university from the ground and the air in a bid to shut down the assault, as television images showed female students running for their lives.
“The death toll in the terrorist attack has risen to 21,” regional police chief Saeed Wazir told AFP hours after the alarm was first raised.
He said the operation had ended and security forces were clearing the area, with most of the student victims shot dead at a hostel for male students.
“More than 30 others including students, staff and security guards were wounded,” he added.
Emergency official Bilal Faizi described seeing five bodies, all with bullet wounds.
Pakistani troops clear way for an ambulance transporting a lifeless body of a victim from Bacha Khan University in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, January 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
Military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter that four attackers had been killed.
“Update: Snipers killed 2 more terrorists on roof top, total Terrorist killed so far 4. All buildings (and) roof top taken over by Army. op continues,” he wrote earlier.
It was not immediately clear if the four were included in the toll of 21 given by police chief Wazir.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Our four suicide attackers carried out the attack on Bacha Khan University today,” Umar Mansoor, a commander in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistani (TTP) militant group told AFP.
Speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location, he said it was in response to a military offensive against extremists in the tribal areas.
Teacher fighting back
Students spoke of one hero teacher — named by media as Syed Hamid Hussain — fighting back against the intruders, shooting his weapon in a bid to protect his charges.
Geology student Zahoor Ahmed said his 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.”
Another student told television reporters he was in class when he heard gunshots.
Pakistani troops and rescue workers gather at the main gate of Bacha Khan University in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, January 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
“We saw three terrorists shouting, ‘Allah is great!’ and rushing towards the stairs of our department,” he said.
“One student jumped out of the classroom through the window. We never saw him get up.”
He also described seeing the chemistry professor holding a pistol and firing at the attackers.
“Then we saw him fall down and as the terrorists entered the (registrar) office we ran away.”
Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain confirmed the lecturer, Dr. Hamid, had died.
Witnesses said dozens of personnel in combat fatigues and carrying automatic weapons had descended on the campus after the attack began, as helicopters buzzed overhead and ambulances raced to the scene.
Officials at hospitals in the city confirmed they were receiving injured patients, and Shaukat Yousafzai, provincial information minister told media that some of the injured were being taken to Peshawar.
Security ‘beefed up’
The attack had echoes of a Taliban assault on an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed more than 150 people, most of them children.
“There are male and female staff members and students on the campus,” university vice chancellor Fazal Raheem Marwat said, adding he had been on his way to work when he was informed of the attack.
“There was no announced threat but we had already beefed up security at the university.”
Naik Mohammed, security chief at the university, said the attackers had entered close to a campus guest house.
Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif shakes hands with an army officer as he arrives at Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. (AFP Photo/Aamir Qureshi)
The 2014 assault in Peshawar was Pakistan’s deadliest ever attack, and prompted a crackdown on extremism in the country.
After a public outcry, the military intensified an offensive in the tribal areas where extremists had previously operated with impunity.
Pakistan’s Jinnah Institute said in a report released Tuesday that the National Action Plan (NAP) helped curb extremist violence last year, although targeted attacks against religious minorities spiked in the Muslim nation of some 200 million people.
On Tuesday, a suicide attack at a market on the city’s outskirts killed 10 people, in addition to the bomber.
Security forces killed three suicide attackers who attempted to wreak havoc at a local court in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Charsadda district, officials said Tuesday.
DSP Charsadda Fayaz Khan said five civilians have been killed in the attack, which the proscribed Jamaat-ul-Ahraar (JuA) claimed.
Director General Inter-Services Public Relations, Major General Asif Ghafoor tweeted, "Chief of Army Staff lauds security forces' response to Charsada Blast. First tier Police response has saved many lives. Shares grief on loss of lives."
Provincial government sources said one lawyer was among those killed, while 15 others were injured.
The three suicide bombers approached the court in the guise of petitioners, suggested an initial assessment report provided by local police to the provincial Counter Terrorism Department.
The report revealed that the first attacker had hurled a hand grenade when he was intercepted by security personnel.
The bomber was killed as security personnel opened fire at the gate of the compound, whereas the second was killed as he entered the court. The third bomber was killed when he detonated his explosives.
In total, the three attackers hurled six grenades. All three bombers were carrying 9mm pistols.
Four judges and around 40 lawyers were present in the premises of the court when bombers targeted the compound.
Eyewitnesses said the remains of the bombers were lying on the roadside along with their explosives and ammunition.
Town resident Mohammad Shahbaz told Reuters he was inside the judicial complex when the suicide bombers stormed it.
“I escaped towards the canteen and climbed the wall to save my life. But there were many people dead and injured,” he said.
Read: Army chief Bajwa vows revenge for Sehwan attacks: 'No more restraint'
Up to 10 ambulances were dispatched to Charsadda from Peshawar, where the Lady Reading Hospital had been put on high alert.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan, whose party rules in KP, lauded the quick action taken by the police, which averted a higher death toll.
The attack came amid heightened security across KP and the country after a recent wave of terror.
Charsadda is at a nearly 40-minute drive from KP’s provincial capital Peshawar, and has been a target of terror attacks for nearly a decade.
A suicide bomber had struck a local court in Charsadda's Shabqadar area last year in March, killing 17 people. That attack too was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahraar.
In January 2016, militants had attacked the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda and shot dead 21 people.
Also read: Fear and panic in Peshawar amid high alert
Resurgence in terror attacks
Pakistan is experiencing a fresh resurgence in terror attacks.
In the last 10 days, over 100 people have killed in terror attacks in Sindh, Balochistan, KP, Fata and Punjab.
On Feb 13, a suicide blast on Lahore's Mall road saw 13 people dead and 85 injured. The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility.
Read more: Senior police officers among 13 killed as suicide bomber strikes Lahore
In another incident on Feb 13, two Bomb Disposal Squad personnel were killed in Quetta while trying to defuse a roadside bomb at Sariab road.
On Feb 15, five people lost their lives in a suicide blast outside a government office in Mohmand Agency. JuA had claimed the responsibility for the attack.
In a separate suicide attack on Feb 15, one person died as a suicide attacker targeted a judges' vehicle in Peshawar. TTP claimed the attack.
Know more: Suicide bomber targets Peshawar judges' vehicle; driver killed
On Feb 16, in what is said to be the worst attack in the recent surge of terrorism, a suicide attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine in Sehwan saw over 85 people dead while more than 200 were injured. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS) group.
The same day, on Feb 16, an IED blast in Awaran, Balochistan left three security officials dead.