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Taliban massacre of schoolchildren shocks Pakistan

Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing scores of young students. The Pakistani Taliban claimed it was in retaliation for a new government military offensive. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner reports on the events and Judy Woodruff turns to The Washington Post’s Tim Craig in Islamabad for more on how the nation is responding.

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  • , Prime Minister, Pakistan (through interpreter):, Secretary of State:, The Washington Post:

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The people of Pakistan were staggered today by the worst terror attack in at least seven years. When it was over, scores of young students lay dead at the hands of Taliban gunmen.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

    MARGARET WARNER:

    The wounded children were brought to a hospital in Peshawar, one after another, some on stretchers, others in the arms of teachers or parents, their dark green school uniforms bloody. Most of the dead were students at a military-run school for first-through-10th graders, along with nine staffers. Classes were under way when the Taliban killers stormed in.

    STUDENT (through interpreter):

    As soon as the firing started, our teacher made us sit in a corner and told us to lower our heads. After around an hour, army personnel came and rescued us. We saw in the corridors our friends who had been shot three or four times, some dead and some injured. Their blood had spilled all over the place.

    MAN (through interpreter):

    I’m the physics lab assistant. We were sitting in the canteen. We saw six people climbing from the wall. We thought it must be the children playing some game. But then we saw a lot of firearms with them. They started firing at us, so we ran into the classrooms and closed the doors.

    MARGARET WARNER:

    Army commandos ended the siege eight hours later. Officials said seven attackers, all wearing explosive vests, were killed.

    The Taliban attacks Pakistani schools frequently, but never on the scale of today’s slaughter. The Pakistani Taliban claimed it was in retaliation for a new government military offensive in North Waziristan. That’s a tribal area west of Peshawar used as a base by Taliban and other extremist groups to launch terror attacks in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    For years, the United States had urged Pakistan’s government to clear out the safe haven, to no effect. But, in June, after a militant assault on Karachi’s international airport that killed dozens, Pakistani forces launched a concerted campaign in North Waziristan, and recently boasted of killing nearly 2,000 militants there.

    Rushing to Peshawar today, Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, vowed, the military offensive will not falter.

    NAWAZ SHARIF

    This is a barbaric act, this high level of terrorism. We condemn this act strongly. Our wishes go to the families who lost their loved ones. I must say that the struggle will continue until we clean our country of this terrorism. There are no doubts about that.

    MARGARET WARNER:

    And, in London, Secretary of State John Kerry joined in the worldwide condemnation.

    JOHN KERRY

    Mothers and fathers send their kids to school to learn, and to be safe and to dream and to find opportunity. Instead, today, they are gone, wiped away by Taliban assassins who serve a dark and almost medieval vision.

    MARGARET WARNER:

    As night fell in Pakistan, families held the first of scores of funerals for the dead. Hundreds of other Pakistanis gathered to mourn at candlelight vigils.

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Later, Afghanistan’s Taliban, a separate faction, condemned the attack on the Pakistani school as — quote — “against Islam.”

    For the latest on the brutal school attack, we turn to reporter Tim Craig of The Washington Post. He is in Islamabad, Pakistan. I spoke to him a short time ago.

    Tim Craig, thank you for talking with us.

    First of all, how are people reacting to this? What are they saying?

    TIM CRAIG

    It’s just incredibly sad. When you’re in Pakistan long enough, these are the sort of routine, violent attacks. Terrorism attacks are nothing new.

    But this took everything to a whole new level. To have the Taliban go into a school and basically have massacre of more than 100 schoolchildren, it sort of touched a very open, raw nerve with people, and it’s just very sad.

    Many people are referring to this as sort of Pakistan’s version of 9/11. I was out earlier today in Islamabad for a while, while this was transpiring. And you could just see people staring at a television sort of with that glassy-eyed stare that we remember from the U.S. on September 11, when people were just watching in shock and disbelief that this was actually happening now in their country.

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This was a military-run school. Are there questions raised about why there wasn’t more security?

    TIM CRAIG:

    I think that’s going to be a big debate and discussion in the coming days and the coming hours as this continues to kind of unfold. It is a military-run school. It’s sort of located on the outskirts of a military containment or a base.

    And you would think there would be more security, but when you work and live in Pakistan, you often can sort of spot little things that happen that, you know, it sort of makes you wonder why the security wasn’t better. A couple months ago, there was a major attack at the Karachi Airport where the suicide bombers made it on the runway, able to bomb, you know, aircraft or try to bomb aircraft with explosive devices and caused several large fires on the runway.

    And that was another example of, like, how could this happen, where was the security? Obviously, it’s a major lapse. But, at the same time, as people in the U.S. even know and the West even know, schools generally are pretty soft targets. Thankfully, there have not been more serious major terrorist attacks targeting schools, but there are many ways into schools. They do have security in some corridors and entryways, but they generally are fairly soft targets across the world.

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why is the Pakistani Taliban targeting these schools? And they said it was in retaliation for the military’s offensive against the militants in this part of the country. Is that an offensive that’s been successful?

    TIM CRAIG:

    There does seem to be some indication that the offensive has pushed the Pakistan Taliban sort of out of some of their traditional safe havens in North Waziristan.

    The operation began in earnest this summer, in June. It involved airstrikes, as well as a sustained ground campaign. And they have been dislodged. Many military analysts here said this sort of shows that they’re up on their heels, that they’re now targeting softer targets. They’re looking for targets of opportunity.

    But, still, this attack was so horrific and such a — just a massacre of so many students, that many people believe this may have crossed some sort of line in terms of public opinion. You know, the Pakistan Taliban is not widely supported in Pakistan. Many people do not support them, do not agree with them, and actually speak out against them, but for years this has been going on where there has been this tolerance of the Pakistan Taliban and what they were able to do in the northwestern part of the country.

    This, many people believe, is sort of a red line that will not be tolerated. And there will be I’m sure in the coming days calls for even tougher and more stringent military action to try to deal with this one way or another finally once and for all.

    At the same time, this operation, you know, this is a multiyear struggle. It’s a multiyear war. And I don’t think anyone expects it’s going to be over soon or even in the coming three, five years. This will still be going on.

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tim Craig, you’re right, such a sad, sad thing to have happened today. We thank you.

    TIM CRAIG:

    Thank you very much.

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