By Ismail Khan
“We have killed all the children in the auditorium,” one of the attackers told his handler. “What do we do now?” he asked. “Wait for the army people, kill them before blowing yourself,” his handler ordered.
This, according to a security official, was one of the last conversations the attackers and their handler had shortly before two remaining suicide bombers charged towards the special operations soldiers positioned just outside the side entrance of the Army Public School’s administration block here on Tuesday.
This and other conversations between the attackers and their handlers during the entire siege of seven and a half hours of the school on Warsak Road form part of an intelligence dossier Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif shared with Afghan authorities on Wednesday.
“Vital elements of intelligence were shared with the authorities concerned with regard to the Peshawar incident,” an Inter-Services Public Relations statement on Gen Sharif’s visit to Afghanistan said.
Pakistan has the names of the attackers and the transcripts of the conversation between one of them, identified as Abuzar, and his handler, ‘commander’ Umar.
Umar Adizai, also known as Umar Naray and Umar Khalifa, is a senior militant from the Frontier Region Peshawar.
Security officials believe he made the calls from Nazian district of Afghanistan’s Nangrahar province and now want the Afghan authorities to take action.
The officials believe that a group of seven militants attacked the school. Five of them blew themselves up inside the administration block and two others outside it.
The attackers entered the building by climbing its rear wall, using a ladder and cutting barbed wire. They all headed for the main auditorium where an instructor was giving a first-aid lesson to students of the school’s senior section.
“Did the attackers have prior knowledge of the congregation in the main hall? We don’t know this yet. This is one of the questions we are trying to find an answer to,” a security official said.
A watchman standing at the rear of the auditorium appears to be the first victim because of a pool of congealed blood splashed in one corner of several steps in the open courtyard.
Finding the rear door closed, the militants charged towards the two main entry and exit doors and this is where the main carnage appears to have taken place, according to a military officer who took part in the counter-assault. Pools of blood at the entrance on both sides bore testimony to the horrific, indiscriminate shooting.
“There were piles of bodies, most dead, some alive. Blood everywhere. I wish I had not seen this,” the officer said.
The students in the hall appear to have rushed to leave the place after hearing the first round of shooting, and this was where they barged into the waiting militants who were blocking the two doors.
Inside the main hall, there was blood everywhere, almost on every inch of it. Shoes of students and women teachers lay asunder. Those who had hid behind rows of seats were shot -- one by one, in the head.
More than 100 bodies and injured were evacuated from the entrances and the hall.
Every row of seats was bloodied. On one seat, there were blood-stained English notebooks of two eighth-grade students, Muhammad Asim and Muhammad Zahid.
A corner to the right of the stage in the auditorium, where an instructor was giving the lesson, was where a woman teacher, who had beseeched the militants to have mercy and let the children go, was shot and later burnt.
By that time, the Special Services Group (SSG) men had arrived and fighting had ensued and the militants were forced to make a run for the administration block, just a few metres away.
Security officials believe the death toll could have been far higher had the militants reached the junior section before the arrival of the SSG personnel.
It is from inside the administration block that the militants fired at the SSG men. Four of the militants blew themselves up inside the lobby of the block when they were cornered.
The impact was huge and devastating. There were pockmarks from the flying ball bearings and human flesh and hair were plastered to the ceiling and the walls.
One of the bombers blew himself up in the office of the Headmistress, Tahira Qazi. Her office stands gutted. Her body was recognised later. A leg of the bomber was lying around.
Two students and three staff members were killed in the administration block along with the headmistress.
The last two bombers charged towards the SSG men who had taken positions on either side of the flank entrance to the block.
One of them exploded himself and after a while, the second one did. Shrapnel and ball bearings hit the rear wall, some pierced through the trees opposite the entrance.
This is where the seven SSG men were injured. One of the personnel who had taken position behind one of the trees was hit in the face, but is reported to be in stable condition.
The assault came to an end but left several questions.
Could the tragedy have been avoided? Yes, given prior specific intelligence tips of August and repeated conveyance of concerns by some teachers regarding the school’s vulnerability vis-a-vis its western and northern boundary walls.
Could the casualties have been avoided or minimised? Probably not, given the short response time. By the time the SSG men arrived and began the operation within 10 to 15 minutes of the assault, the militants had carried out much of the carnage.
There was no clarity on the number of militants and their location. The SSG team arrived through the front gate covered by two armoured personnel carriers. As they moved from block to block, the first major priority was to secure the junior section.