Taliban Attack Teenage Pakistani Girl Activist

Pakistani Taliban supporters pray for those killed in an alleged US missile strike.
Associated Press + More

By SHERIN ZADA, Associated Press

MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) — A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking children home from school in Pakistan's volatile Swat Valley on Tuesday and shot and wounded a 14-year-old activist known for championing the education of girls and publicizing atrocities committed by the Taliban, officials said.

The attack in the city of Mingora targeted 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, who is widely respected for her work to promote the schooling of girls — something that the Taliban strongly opposes. She was nominated last year for the International Children's Peace Prize.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, calling Malala's work "obscenity."

"This was a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter," said Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan by telephone. "We have carried out this attack."

The school bus was about to leave the school grounds in Mingora when a bearded man approached it and asked which one of the girls was Malala, said Rasool Shah, the police chief in the town. Another girl pointed to Malala, but the activist denied it was her and the gunmen then shot both of the girls, the police chief said.

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Malala was shot twice — once in the head and once in the neck — but her wounds were not life-threatening, said Tariq Mohammad, a doctor at the main hospital in Mingora. The second girl shot was in stable condition, the doctor said. Pakistani television showed pictures of Malala being taken by helicopter to a military hospital in the frontier city of Peshawar.

In the past, the Taliban has threatened Malala and her family for her activism. When she was only 11 years old, she began writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC's Urdu service about life under Taliban occupation. After the Taliban were ejected from the Swat Valley in the summer of 2009, she began speaking out publicly about the militant group and the need for girls' education.

While chairing a session of a children's assembly supported by UNICEF in the valley last year, the then-13-year-old championed a greater role for young people.

"Girl members play an active role," she said, according to an article on the U.N. organization's website. "We have highlighted important issues concerning children, especially promoting girls' education in Swat."

The attack displayed the viciousness of Islamic militants in the Swat Valley, where the military conducted a major operation in 2009 to clear out insurgents. It was a reminder of the challenges the government faces in keeping the area free of militant influence.

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The scenic valley — nicknamed the Switzerland of Pakistan — was once a popular tourist destination for Pakistanis, and honeymooners used to vacation in the numerous hotels dotted along the river running through Swat. But the Taliban's near-total takeover of the valley just 175 miles (280 kilometers) from the capital in 2008 shocked many Pakistanis, who considered militancy to be a far-away problem in Afghanistan or Pakistan's rugged tribal regions.

Militants began asserting their influence in Swat in 2007 — part of a wave of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters expanding their reach from safe havens near the Afghan border. By 2008 they controlled much of the valley and began meting out their own brand of justice.

They forced men to grow beards, restricted women from going to the bazaar, whipped women they considered immoral and beheaded opponents.

During the roughly two years of their rule, Taliban in the region destroyed around 200 schools. Most were girls' institutions, though some prominent boys' schools were struck as well.

At one point, the Taliban said they were halting female education, a move that echoed their militant brethren in neighboring Afghanistan who during their rule barred girls from attending school.

While the Pakistani military managed to flush out the insurgents during the military operation, their Taliban's top leadership escaped, leaving many of the valley's residents on edge.