Militants storm Pakistan university, kill at least 20

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Gunmen Storm Pakistani School, Killing Many

CHARSADDA, Pakistan/ISLAMABAD, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Armed militants stormed a university in volatile northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens a little more than a year after the massacre of 134 students at a school in the area, officials said.

A senior Pakistani Taliban commander claimed responsibility for the assault in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, but an official spokesman later denied involvement, calling the attack "un-Islamic."

The violence nevertheless shows that militants retain the ability to launch attacks, despite a country-wide anti-terrorism crackdown and a military campaign against their strongholds along the lawless border with Afghanistan.

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A security official said the death toll could rise to as high as 40 at Bacha Khan University in the city of Charsadda. The army said it had concluded operations to clear the campus six hours after the attack began, and that four gunmen were dead.

A spokesman for rescue workers, Bilal Ahmad Faizi, said 19 bodies had been recovered including students, guards, policemen and at least one teacher, named by media as chemistry professor Syed Hamid Husain. Husain reportedly shot back at the gunmen with a pistol to allow his students to flee.

Many of the dead were apparently shot in the head execution-style, TV footage showed.

The militants, using the cover of thick, wintry fog, scaled the walls of the university on Wednesday morning before entering buildings and opening fire on students and teachers in classrooms and hostels, police said.

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Taliban attack on Pakistani university
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Militants storm Pakistan university, kill at least 20
Pakistani army soldiers take part of search operation at the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani army soldiers take part in search operation at the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani army soldiers take part in search operation at the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani troops arrive at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University named after the founder of an anti-Taliban political party in the country's northwest Wednesday, killing several people, officials said. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
Pakistani army soldiers take part in search operation at the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers shift an injured man to a hospital following an attack by gunmen in the Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO /Hasham AHMED / AFP / HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers shift an injured victim from the Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani students look at a room inside a hostel following the attack at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University named after the founder of an anti-Taliban political party in the country's northwest Wednesday, killing many people, officials said. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
PAKHTUNKHWA, PAKISTAN - JANUARY 20: Blood stains are seen on the stairs of a dormitory after Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University's campus in the Charsadda town of Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan on January 20, 2016. The Pakistani army on Wednesday assumed control of a university campus following a four-hour gun battle with militants -- after the latter killed 25 people, mostly students -- in the northwestern Charsaddah district near the Afghan border, according to a local official. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
PAKHTUNKHWA, PAKISTAN - JANUARY 20: Blood is seen on the ground after Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University's campus in the Charsadda town of Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan on January 20, 2016. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
PAKHTUNKHWA, PAKISTAN - JANUARY 20: A view of a dormitory room, which was attacked, is seen after Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University's campus in the Charsadda town of Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan on January 20, 2016. The Pakistani army on Wednesday assumed control of a university campus following a four-hour gun battle with militants -- after the latter killed 25 people, mostly students -- in the northwestern Charsaddah district near the Afghan border, according to a local official. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
PAKHTUNKHWA, PAKISTAN - JANUARY 20: (EDITORS NOTE: Image depicts death.) Body of a militant is seen after Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University's campus in the Charsadda town of Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan on January 20, 2016. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pakistani soldiers cordon off the site at Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in a Taliban assault on a university in Pakistan, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / Aamir QURESHI / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistan's army chief Raheef Sharif (R) arrives at Bacha Khan university following an attack by militants in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in a Taliban assault on a university in Pakistan, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO / Aamir QURESHI / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers carry coffins at a hospital following an attack by gunment at Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. Gunmen have attacked a university in northwestern Pakistan, injuring at least three people, and are still on the rampage, security and school officials told AFP in the latest assault to hit the militant-infested region. AFP PHOTO / Hasham AHMED / AFP / HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani police and onlookers gather in front of a hospital following an attack by gunmen at Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO /Hasham AHMED / AFP / HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pakistan army helicopter flies over the Bacha Khan University, which is under attack by gumen in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University named after the founder of an anti-Taliban political party in the country's northwest Wednesday, killing many people, officials said. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
Pakistani rescuers shift an injured victim outside the Bacha Khan university following an attack by gunmen in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. Gunmen have attacked a university in northwestern Pakistan, injuring at least three people, and are still on the rampage, security and school officials told AFP in the latest assault to hit the militant-infested region. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani rescuers shift an injured man to a hospital following an attack by gunmen in the Bacha Khan university in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. At least 21 people died in an armed assault on a university in Pakistan on January 20, where witnesses reported two large explosions as security forces moved in under dense fog to halt the bloodshed. AFP PHOTO /Hasham AHMED / AFP / HASHAM AHMED (Photo credit should read HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani troops clear way for an ambulance transporting a lifeless body of a victim from Bacha Khan University in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University named after the founder of an anti-Taliban political party in the country's northwest Wednesday, killing many people, officials said. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
People carry a coffin of a victim killed in an attack, at a local hospital in Charsadda town, some 35 kilometers (21 miles) outside the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Gunmen stormed Bacha Khan University named after the founder of an anti-Taliban political party in the country's northwest Wednesday, killing many people, officials said. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
This photograph taken from a mobile phone shows Pakistani security personnel taking position outside the Bacha Khan university following an attack by gunmen in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. Gunmen have attacked a university in northwestern Pakistan, injuring at least three people, and are still on the rampage, security and school officials told AFP in the latest assault to hit the militant-infested region. AFP PHOTO / A MAJEED / AFP / A Majeed (Photo credit should read A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the student wing of a Pakistani religious group Jamaat-e-Islami chant slogans during a demonstration to condemn the Taliban gunmen attack on Bacha Khan University, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 in Karachi, Pakistan. Taliban gunmen stormed a university in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing many people and triggering an hours-long gunbattle with the army and police before the military declared that the assault in a town near the city of Peshawar was over.(AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
Members of the student wing of a Pakistani religious group Jamaat-e-Islami chant slogans during a demonstration to condemn the Taliban gunmen attack on Bacha Khan University, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 in Karachi, Pakistan. Taliban gunmen stormed a university in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing many people and triggering an hours-long gunbattle with the army and police before the military declared that the assault in a town near the city of Peshawar was over.(AP Photo/Shakil Adil)
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Students told media they saw several young men wielding AK-47 guns storming the university housing where many students were sleeping.

"They came from behind and there was a big commotion," an unnamed male student told a news channel from a hospital bed in Charsadda's District Hospital. "We were told by teachers to leave immediately. Some people hid in bathrooms."

Thirty five of the wounded remain in hospital, a local police official said late on Wednesday.

CONTRADICTING CLAIMS

The gunmen attacked as the university prepared to host a poetry recital on Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the death anniversary of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a popular ethnic Pashtun independence activist after whom the university is named.

Vice Chancellor Fazal Rahim told reporters that the university teaches over 3,000 students and was hosting an additional 600 visitors for the poetry recital.

Umar Mansoor, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander involved in the December 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar, claimed responsibility for the Charsadda assault and said it involved four of his men.

He told Reuters by telephone the university was targeted because it was a government institution that supported the army.

However, later in the day, official Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khorasani issued a written statement disassociating the militants from the attack, calling it un-Islamic.

"Youth who are studying in non-military institutions, we consider them as builders of the future nation and we consider their safety and protection our duty," the statement said.

The reason for the conflicting claims was not immediately clear. While the Taliban leadership is fractured, Mansoor is believed to remain loyal to central leader Mullah Fazlullah.

The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They are loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban who ruled most of Afghanistan until they were overthrown by U.S.-backed military action in 2001.

By afternoon on Wednesday, the military said all four gunmen had been killed.

"The operation is over and the university has been cleared," Pakistan army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said.

A security official close to the operation said he had seen the four gunmen's bodies riddled with bullets. He said none of the gunmen was wearing a suicide vest, but they carried guns and grenades.

RUMOURS OF ATTACK

Television footage showed military vehicles packed with soldiers driving into the campus as helicopters buzzed overhead and ambulances lined up outside the main gate while anxious parents consoled each other.

Shabir Khan, a lecturer in the English department, said he was about to leave his university housing for the department when firing began.

"Most of the students and staff were in classes when the firing began," Khan said.

Several schools had closed early at the weekend around Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after rumors circulated of a possible attack.

The area has been on edge since the December 2014 massacre by six gunmen in Peshawar.

Pakistan, which has suffered from years of jihadist militant violence, has killed and arrested hundreds of suspected militants under a major crackdown launched afterwards.

The Peshawar school attack was seen as having hardened Pakistan's resolve to fight militants along its lawless border with Afghanistan.

"We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland," Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement after Wednesday's attack.

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