Pakistan woke up to a day of mourning on Wednesday after Taliban militants killed 132 students at a school in the city of Peshawar in a grisly attack which shocked the nation and put pressure on the government to do more to tackle the insurgency.
Pakistanis waited to see what their government – long accused of not being tough enough on the Islamists – and the army would do to stem spiraling violence in a nation which has become a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked groups.
Seeking to appear decisive, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he had lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in response to the massacre.
The focus was on Army Chief Raheel Sharif’s visit to Afghanistanwhere the two sides, their relationship strained after decades of mistrust, were due to discuss how to crack down together on militants hiding on their common border.
People around Pakistan lit candles and staged vigils as parents buried their children during mass funerals in and around Peshawar – a volatile city on the edge of Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt.
Pakistanis may be used to almost daily attacks on security forces but an outright assault on children stunned the country, prompting commentators to call for a tough military response.
In all, 148 people were killed in the attack on the military-run Army Public School.
The school’s sprawling grounds were all but deserted on Wednesday, with a handful of snipers manning the roofs of its pink brick-and-stone buildings.
Army vehicles and soldiers wearing face masks and carrying automatic rifles were deployed by the entrance.
A Reuters tour of the school revealed a place shattered by hours of fighting, its floor slick with blood and walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Classrooms were filled with abandoned school bags, mobile phones and broken chairs.
One wall was smashed where a suicide bomber blew himself up, blood splattered across it. His body parts were piled nearby on a white cloth. The air was thick with the smell of explosives and flesh.
A day after the attack, Peshawar appeared subdued and many people were still in shock. More details of the well-organized attack emerged as witnesses came forward with accounts.
“The attackers came around 10:30 a.m. on a pick-up van,” said Issam Uddin, a 25-year-old school bus driver.
“They drove it around the back of the school and set it on fire to block the way. Then they went to Gate 1 and killed a soldier, a gatekeeper and a gardener. Firing began and the first suicide attack took place.”
Sharif has announced three day of mourning but people’s anxiety focused on what the authorities can do to protect them.
Sharif came power last year promising to negotiate peace with the Taliban – but those efforts failed this year, weakening his position and prompting the army to launch an air-and-ground operation against insurgents along the Afghan border.
The military staged more air strikes there late on Tuesday in response to the school attack, security sources said, but it was unclear what the target was.
GOOD AND BAD TALIBAN
Despite the well-publicized crackdown, the military itself has been accused of being too lenient towards militants who critics say are used to carry out the army’s bidding in places like the disputed Kashmir region and Afghanistan.
The military denies the accusations.
“People will have to stop equivocating and come together in the face of national tragedy,” said Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States and an opposition politician.
“There have been national leaders who been apologetic about the Taliban, who have not named the Taliban in their speeches.”
The Pakistani Taliban, who are fighting to impose strict Islamic rule in Pakistan, are holed up in mountains straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
They are allied with the Afghan Taliban as well as al Qaeda and other foreign fighters, andPakistan has long accused Afghanistan of not doing enough to crack down on their bases.
Afghanistan, for its part, blames Pakistan for allowing militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network to operate freely on its territory.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper quoted a source as saying that the militants were acting on direct orders from their handlers in Afghanistan and that prominent Taliban commander Umar Naray was the ultimate mastermind of the attack.