The first funerals are being held for the victims of a Taliban school massacre in Pakistan on Tuesday that left at least 141 people dead, most of them young students.
Wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives, seven assailants attacked the military-run facility in the northwestern city of Peshawar, shooting children and adults.
Pakistani officials said 132 of the dead were students about 12 to 16 years old. Nine school staff members also died in the siege, which lasted more than eight hours.
A provincial official said more than 120 others were wounded in the assault. VOA Deewa Radio reporter Hameedullah Khan said more than 100 of the wounded were children.
Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, a Pakistan army spokesman, said security forces killed the attackers and saved hundreds of lives in a swift operation after the bloodshed began.
Heavily armed Taliban gunmen entered from the rear of the school "by cutting and crossing the fence," Bajwa said. "... They entered the auditorium, where all the children were going through an exam, and they started shooting them indiscriminately and they caused the maximum damage in the first 10 minutes of their attack."
Army commandos responded, killing all seven terrorists, Bajwa said.
The attack on the school, in a highly secured part of Peshawar city, began about 10 a.m. local time and ended around 6.30 p.m. (1330 GMT), police said, according to the French news agency AFP.
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The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for Pakistan's offensive targeting militants in the country's northwestern tribal region, near the Afghan border.
The area has served as a major sanctuary and training ground for Pakistani and Afghan militants responsible for terrorist attacks on both sides.
Pakistan's President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attacks.
Sharif, who arrived in Peshawar on Tuesday, said the "government will not be deterred by this barbaric act" and vowed to continue military operations against the militants. He also declared a three-day national mourning period.
Bajwa, the Pakistani military spokesman, said the Taliban gunmen made no demands and started killing children as soon as they entered the building.
"They didn't take any hostages initially and started firing in the hall," Bajwa said. But the militants had brought rations for several days, he said in a Reuters report, implying that they may have intended to take students hostage.
Bajwa said on Twitter that explosive devices had been planted by the militants and were hampering clearance efforts.
Doctors said dozens of students were hospitalized, some in critical condition. Authorities in Peshawar appealed for blood donors.
VOA reporter Khan, who was at a Peshawar hospital, said, "A lot of people are donating blood.”
He said parents, rushing to the hospital where the bodies of many of the children were brought, were "weeping. They were beating themselves, there was sorrow."
Some students rescued
Ahsan Mukhtar, a student rescued by security forces, said, "As soon as the gunfire erupted, our teacher instructed everyone to move to a corner of the room for safety.”
Mukhtar added, “An hour later, when the intensity of the fire reduced, army soldiers arrived to rescue us, and on the way out, we saw bullet-ridden bodies of our schoolmates everywhere.”
Provincial Chief Minister Pervez Khattak said the gunmen were dressed in the uniform of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force.
Although the school enrolls some civilian students, many of its pupils are children of army officials, the Taliban's intended target, Reuters and The New York Times reported.
Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani told Reuters, "We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females.
"We are doing this because we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attack, calling it "an act of horror and rank cowardice to attack defenseless children while they learn.”
Pakistani children's education advocate and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban in a 2012 assassination attempt for her activism, responded to the attacks with resolve.
"I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar. ... Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this. ... I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated," Malala said.
U.S. President Barack Obama said that "by targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity." Obama added that the U.S. would continue to support Pakistan's efforts to combat terrorism and extremism.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson expressed solidarity with the country, saying "few have suffered more at the hands of terrorists and extremists than the people of Pakistan."
British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted Tuesday: "The news from Pakistan is deeply shocking. It's horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school."
VOA's Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad. VOA Deewa Radio reporter Hameedullah Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar, Pakistan. Some material for this report came from Reuters.