Armed terrorists stormed a university in volatile northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens, a little more than a year after the massacre of 134 students at a school in the area, officials said.
A senior Pakistani Taliban commander claimed responsibility for the assault in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but an official spokesman later denied involvement, calling the attack “un-Islamic.”
The violence nevertheless shows that terrorists retain the ability to launch attacks, despite a country-wide anti-terrorism crackdown and a military campaign against their strongholds along the lawless border with Afghanistan.
A security official said the death toll could rise to as high as 40 at Bacha Khan University in the city of Charsadda. The army said it had concluded operations to clear the campus six hours after the attack began, and that four gunmen were dead.
A spokesman for rescue workers, Bilal Ahmad Faizi, said 19 bodies had been recovered including students, guards, policemen and at least one teacher, named by media as chemistry professor Syed Hamid Husain. Husain reportedly shot back at the terrorists with a pistol to allow his students to flee.
The terrorists, using the cover of thick, wintry fog, scaled the walls of the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, before entering buildings and opening fire on students and teachers in classrooms and hostels, police said.
Students told media they saw several young men wielding AK-47 guns storming the university housing where many students were sleeping.
“They came from behind and there was a big commotion,” an unnamed male student told a news channel from a hospital bed in Charsadda’s District Hospital. “We were told by teachers to leave immediately. Some people hid in bathrooms.”
The terrorists attacked as the university prepared to host an event on Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the death anniversary of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a popular independence activist after whom the university is named.
Vice Chancellor Fazal Rahim told reporters that the university teaches over 3,000 students and was hosting an additional 600 visitors on Wednesday.
Police inspector Saeed Wazir said 70 percent of the students had been rescued.
“All students have been evacuated from the hostels, but militants are still hiding in different parts of the university and some students and staff are stuck inside,” he said before the firing had stopped, adding that it was unclear how many terrorists were involved.
Media footage showed soldiers entering the campus, as ambulances lined up outside the main gate and anxious parents consoled each other.
Pakistan, which has suffered from years of terrorist violence, has eliminated or arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists under a major crackdown launched after a massacre of 134 school children in December 2014 in the northwest.
The 2014 school attack by six terrorists believed linked to the Pakistani Taliban, hit a raw nerve in Pakistan and was seen as having hardened Pakistan’s resolve to fight jihadist terrorists along its lawless border with Afghanistan.
Shabir Khan, a lecturer in the English department, said he was about to leave the hostel for the department when the attack started.”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 have been killed and injured.”