PESHAWAR, Dec 16 : Taliban insurgents killed at least 141 people, most of them children, after storming an army-run school on Tuesday in one of Pakistan's bloodiest ever attacks.
Witnesses described how a huge blast shook the Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar and six gunmen in government paramilitary uniforms went from classroom to classroom shooting children, some as young as 12.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the second deadliest terror attack in the country's recent history, calling it revenge for a major military offensive in the region.
A teenage survivor described how he played dead to escape the militants as they rampaged through the school, hunting for people to kill.
Shahrukh Khan, 16, said he and his classmates ducked below their desks when four gunmen burst into their room.
"I saw a pair of big blackboots coming towards me, this guy was probably hunting for students hiding beneath the benches," Khan told AFP from the trauma ward of the city's Lady Reading Hospital
Khan decided to play dead after being shot in both legs, stuffing his tie into his mouth to stifle his screams.
"The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again," he said.
"My body was shivering. I saw death so close and I will never forget the black boots approaching me -- I felt as though it was death that was approaching me."
The Lady Reading Hospital was thronged with distraught parents weeping uncontrollably as children's bodies arrived, their school uniforms drenched in blood.
Irshadah Bibi, 40, whose 12-year-old son was among the dead, beat her face in grief, throwing herself against an ambulance.
"O God, why did you snatch away my son? What is the sin of my child and all these children?" she wept.
Police officials said the attack ended around 6.30 pm (1330 GMT), some eight hours after it began, with all six militants dead.
Chief army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said on Twitter the operation was "closing up", but that explosive devices planted by the militants were hampering clearance efforts.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the attack as a "national tragedy unleashed by savages".
"These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation's loss," he said.
Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, herself shot by the Taliban in 2012, said she was "heartbroken" by "the senseless and cold-blooded" killing.
The leaders of India and Afghanistan, Pakistan's sometimes fractious neighbours, both condemned the attack.
Provincial information minister Mushtaq Ghani told AFP the death toll had reached 130, with a similar number wounded. The toll was confirmed by another provincial minister.
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.
Tuesday's attack was seen as shocking even by the standards of Pakistan, which has suffered thousands of deaths in bomb and gun attacks since the TTP rose up in 2007.
Only one terror attack in Pakistan's 67-year history has produced a higher death toll: the October 2007 blasts targeting former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, which killed 139.
TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani said Tuesday's assault was carried out to avenge Taliban fighters and their families killed in the army's offensive against militant strongholds in North Waziristan.
"We are doing this because we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed," he said.
"We are taking this step so that their families should mourn as ours are mourning."
The military has hailed the operation as a major success in disrupting the TTP's insurgency.
More than 1,600 militants have been killed since the launch of Zarb-e-Azb in June, according to data compiled by AFP from regular military statements.
Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said the attack was intended to weaken the military's resolve.
"The militants know they won't be able to strike at the heart of the military, they don't have the capacity. So they are going for soft targets," Masood told. ?AFP