By REBECCA SANTANA and RIAZ KHAN, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Schools shut their doors in protest and Pakistanis across the country held vigils Wednesday to pray for a 14-year-old girl who was shot by a Taliban gunman after daring to advocate education for girls and criticize the militant group.
The shooting of Malala Yousufzai on Tuesday in the town of Mingora in the volatile Swat Valley horrified Pakistanis across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum. Many in the country hoped the attack and the outrage it has sparked will be a turning point in Pakistan's long-running battle against the Taliban, which still enjoys considerable public support for fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Top U.S. officials condemned the attack and offered to help the girl.
A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking children home from school and shot Malala in the head and neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded. Pictures of the vehicle showed bloodstained seats where the girls were sitting.
Malala appeared to be out of immediate danger after doctors operated on her early Wednesday to remove a bullet lodged in her neck. But she remained in intensive care at a hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar, and Pakistan's Interior Minister said the next 48 hours would be crucial.
Small rallies and prayer sessions were held for her in Mingora, the eastern city of Lahore, the southern port city of Karachi and the capital of Islamabad. In newspapers, on TV and in social media forums, Pakistanis voiced their disgust with the attack, and expressed their admiration for a girl who spoke out against the Taliban when few dared.
Even the country's top military officer — a man who rarely makes public statements — condemned the shooting and visited the Peshawar hospital to check on the teenager.
"In attacking Malala, the terrorist have failed to grasp that she is not only an individual, but an icon of courage and hope who vindicates the great sacrifices that the people of Swat and the nation gave, for wresting the valley from the scourge of terrorism," Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said in a statement.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said US officials "strongly condemn" the shooting and called it "barbaric" and "cowardly."
He said U.S. has offered any assistance to Malala, mentioning possible air ambulance transport to a facility suitable for her treatment if it becomes necessary.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the young Pakistani girl.
"She was attacked and shot by extremists who don't want girls to have an education and don't want girls to speak for themselves, and don't want girls to become leaders," she said.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack on Malala, calling it a "heinous and cowardly act," U.N. spokesman Nartin Nesirky said.
Malala is admired across Pakistan for exposing the Taliban's atrocities and advocating girls' education in the face of religious extremism.