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ROME – Two young schoolgirls were killed May 16 when a police officer tasked with ensuring security opened fire at a bus carrying students and teachers at a missionary-run Catholic girls’ school in northwestern Pakistan.
The shooting happened Tuesday at the Sangota Public School, situated in the Swat Valley in the volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and which is run by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin.
A security officer at the school, Alam Khan, has been arrested after he opened fire on a bus carrying students and teachers leaving the school around 2:00 p.m., killing two students, including a 9-year-old girl, and wounding five others.
Senior police official Nasir Satti has said Khan was on duty due to concerns surrounding potential militant attacks but denied that Tuesday’s shooting fell into that category.
The Catholic charitable organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is active throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and beyond, reported that an initial statement from the Swat District Police to the school said Khan was “mentally ill” and had been suspended “twice for violent behavior.”
Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad issued a statement lamenting the incident and calling for Khan to be punished regardless of his mental status, so as “to avoid similar tragedies in the future.”
Arshad also invited the 448 Church-run educational institutions under his jurisdiction to organize a day of prayer in solidarity with the Sangota Public School.
Swat District Police Officer (DPO) Shafiullah Gandapur, according to ACN, said that Khan “is a murderer, arrested with the weapon of the offense,” and promised parents that “we will respect the criteria of justice. Our hearts are sad.”
In the wake of the shooting, parents ran outside the school and blocked the road until police could arrive. One parent told ACN that “I panicked after seeing blood on my daughter’s foot. The vehicle was parked inside the school when the shooting started.”
Pakistan’s Ecumenical Commission on Human Development urged the government to act, saying, “religious minorities are heartbroken. We feel threatened and insecure in the face of growing terrorism in the country, in the throes of economic and political turmoil.”
“We pray for the souls of the deceased and for the healing of survivors who were targeted while they were there only to receive an education,” the commission’s executive director James Rehmat said.
The Sangota school has a reputation for providing a high-quality education in the Malakand region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan and is where thousands were killed during the United States’s War on Terror.
Pakistan’s Taliban, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, was established in 2007 when several armed groups joined together. The group also holds historic ties to the Afghani Taliban.
Tuesday was not the first time the Sangota Public School has faced a violent attack amid the decades of violence in the area. It was bombed by the Taliban in 2008 for providing an education to girls in English, and the nuns running the school were accused of converting young Muslim girls to Christianity. The school reopened in 2012, after the Pakistani Army rebuilt it.
The Swat Valley where the school is located was a stronghold for the TTP until 2019, when security forces cleared the area of militant groups following a series of military operations.
Though gun violence targeting children is rare in Pakistan, nearly 150 people, most of them students, were killed in 2014 when TTP militants attacked a school in Peshawar, the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Since then, police have been deployed at schools throughout the country, especially those in the still violent northwest, where despite having been cleared out in 2019, the TTP in recent months has increased attacks against security forces.
Earlier this month, seven people, including several teachers, were shot and killed at another school in Pakistan’s northwestern Kurram district.
Multiple gunmen stormed the Government High School Tari Mangal in Kurram, also located in northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on May 4, killing several teachers and gunning down another teacher from the school in a separate attack.
A gunman stormed a government school where students were taking exams, killing at least seven people, at least four of them teachers and two students. Three police officers were also injured in the incident.
Earlier that day, another teacher from the same school, a Sunni Muslim, was gunned down on the road in a separate attack in Kurram.
No one took responsibility for the attack, but the area is known for past sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni tribes. The district is composed of a majority Shia population, which is often targeted by armed groups attached to the local Taliban.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen