Taliban suicide bombers stormed an army-run school in Pakistan on Tuesday, killing over 126 people, most of them children, officials said.
Five of the six terrorists have been killed.
Witnesses described how a huge blast shook the Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar and gunmen went from classroom to classroom, shooting children.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack as retaliation for a major military offensive in the region, saying militants had been ordered to shoot older students.
The attack began around 10.30 am when a group of at least five insurgents, reportedly in military uniforms, entered the school.
Pakistan’s military headquarters said a “rescue operation” was under way, with troops still exchanging fire with attackers more than three hours after the incident began.
Nearly 500 students and staff members were reportedly in the school when the attack began, though according to the military the bulk of them have been evacuated.
It is not clear how many are still in the school.
Provincial information minister Mushtaq Ghani said many of the dead were killed in a suicide blast.
A student who survived the attack said soldiers came to rescue students during a lull in the firing.
“When we were coming out of the class we saw dead bodies of our friends lying in the corridors. They were bleeding. Some were shot three times, some four times,” the student said.
The school on Peshawar’s Warsak Road is part of the Army Public Schools and Colleges System, which runs 146 schools nationwide for the children of military personnel and civilians. Its students range in age from around 10 to 18.
The schools educate the children of both officers and non-commissioned soldiers and army wives often teach in them.
TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani said there were six attackers.
“They include target killers and suicide attackers. They have been ordered to shoot the older students but not the children,” he said.
“This attack is a response to Zarb-e-Azab and the killing of Taliban fighters and harassing their families.”
The hardline Islamist movement immediately claimed responsibility.
“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
Zarb-e-Azb is the official name for the army’s offensive against strongholds of the Taliban and other militants in North Waziristan.
The military has hailed the operation as a major success in disrupting the TTP’s insurgency, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis since it erupted in 2007.
The army said in a statement that many hostages had been evacuated but did not say how many.
“Rescue operation by troops underway. Exchange of fire continues. Bulk of student(s) and staff evacuated. Reports of some children and teachers killed by terrorist,” the army said in a brief English-language statement.