ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — A deadly, hours-long siege of a school in northwest Pakistan ended Tuesday evening with all the Taliban militants responsible killed, at least 130 people — most of them children — dead and a country once again grasping for answers after a horrific attack.
Six suicide bombers scaled the walls of Army Public School and Degree College in the violence-plagued city of Peshawar around 10 a.m. (midnight ET) intent on killing older students there, according to Mohammed Khurrassani, a spokesman for the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan Taliban.
These Taliban had “300 to 400 people … under their custody” at one point, Khurrassani said.
Pakistani troops responded, fending off gunfire and improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists as they went through the compound, building by building, room by room. By 4 p.m., they had managed to confine the attackers to four buildings, and a few hours later, Peshawar police Chief Mohammad Aijaz Khan said that all of them were dead.
Still, the ordeal wasn’t over.
Pakistani authorities continued clearing the school in Peshawar, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the country’s capital, Islamabad, wary of planted explosives and other potential threats.
Making sure others weren’t still hiding for their safety, counting the dead and treating the wounded — 182, according to provincial Information Minister Mushtaq Ghani — remained pressing tasks as well. Pictures showed victims being treated at a nearby hospital. The 130 killed don’t include the slain militants.
In a tweet, military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa called the attack a “ghastly act of cowardice in killing innocents” that, in his view, proves that the Taliban are “not only enemies of (Pakistan) but enemies of humanity.”
“They have hit at the heart of the nation,” Bajwa said. “But … they can’t in any way diminish the will of this great nation.”
Minister: Most dead between ages 12 and 16
On a typical day, the Army Public School and Degree College is home to up to 1,000 students, most of them sons and daughters of army personnel from around Peshawar. The boys and girls attend classes in different buildings on the compound.
How many of them will go home to their families alive remained in question Tuesday night, as Pakistani troops went room by room.
The Pakistani military had said that most students and teachers managed to evacuate the complex before being targeted or taken by the Taliban.
But many could not.
Students said gunmen walked through where students in grades 8, 9 and 10 have classes and began firing randomly, said Dr. Aamir Bilal of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. Seventh-grader Mohammad Bilal said he was sitting outside his classroom taking a math test when the gunfire erupted.
“They were making exclamations of ‘God is great.’ Then one of them proclaimed that ‘A lot of the children are under the benches; kill them,’ ” recalled another student, 14-year-old Ahmed Faraz, from Lady Reading Hospital. “They climbed the benches and started firing at the children. ”
Most of those killed were between the ages of 12 and 16, said Pervez Khattak, chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital
By 7 p.m., Lady Reading Hospital had already taken in 31 dead boys and another 45 injured boys, Bilal said. He described the condition of the injured as very serious, noting that many of them had gunshot wounds all over their bodies.
Pakistan has seen plenty of violence, much of it involving militants based in provinces such as South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency — all restive regions in northwest Pakistan, along its border with Afghanistan.
It is the home base the TTP, an organization that has sought to force its conservative version of Islam in Pakistan. They have battled Pakistani troops and, on a number of occasions, attacked civilians as well.
Schoolchildren have been among their targets. The most notable among them was Malala Yousafzai, who was singled out by Taliban militants October 9, 2012, and shot while riding from home. The teenage girl survived and, last week, became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote education and girls rights in Pakistan and beyond.
And Peshawar, an ancient city of more than 3 million people tucked right up against the Khyber Pass, has often found itself in the center of it all. Militants have repeatedly targeted Peshawar in response to Pakistani military offensives, like a 2009 truck bombing of a popular marketplace frequented by women and children that killed more than 100 people.
Yousafzai said Tuesday she was “heartbroken by this (latest) senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar.”
“Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this,” the 16-year-old said.
Deadliest attack since 2007
Still, even by Pakistan and the Taliban’s gruesome standards, Tuesday’s attack may be the most abominable yet.
This is the deadliest incident inside Pakistan since October 2007, when about 139 Pakistanis died and more than 250 others were wounded in an attack near a procession for exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.
As recently as last spring, the Pakistan Taliban — a group closely affiliated with the Taliban in Afghanistan and whose members swear allegiance to the Afghan group’s leader, Mullah Omar — and the Pakistani government were involved in peace talks. The government released 19 Taliban noncombatants in a goodwill gesture.
But talks broke down under a wave of attacks by the Taliban and mounting political pressure to bring the violence under control.
Taliban: Revenge for killing of tribesmen
In September 2013, choir members and children attending Sunday school were among 81 people killed in a suicide bombing at the Protestant All Saints Church of Pakistan. A splinter group of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the church attack, blaming the U.S. program of drone strikes in tribal areas of the country.
And for the past few months, the Pakistani military has been conducting a ground offensive aimed at clearing out militants. The campaign has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The military offensive in the region has spurred deadly retaliations.
Khurrassani, the Pakistan Taliban spokesman, told CNN that the latest attack was revenge for the killing of hundreds of innocent tribesmen during repeated army operations in provinces including South Waziristan, North Waziristan and the Khyber Agency.
The TTP spokesman challenged that ordinary citizens were targeted, saying that five army vehicles are routinely stationed at the school.
“We are facing such heavy nights in routine,” Khurrassani said, rationalizing the siege shortly before it ended. “Today, you must face the heavy night.”
By all standards, the attack on the Army Public School and Degree College is historic — not just for Pakistan, but for the entire world. It’s the bloodiest on a school since armed Chechen rebels took about 1,200 children and adults hostage in Beslan in 2004, a siege that ended with at least 334 people killed.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the news “deeply shocking,” saying “it’s horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.” He was among a number of officials from around the world who condemned the violence.
“By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack,” U.S. President Barack Obama said, “terrorists have once again shown their depravity.”