CHARSADDA, Pakistan/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Stuck with 15 of his students on a third floor balcony of a campus building as gunmen came up the stairs, university director Mohammad Shakil urged Pakistani police arriving at the scene to toss him up a gun so he could shoot back.
“We were hiding ... but were unarmed,” Shakil told Reuters, speaking after four Islamist militants attacked Bacha Khan University in Pakistan’s troubled northwest on Wednesday, killing more than 20 people.
“I was worried about the students, and then one of the militants came after us,” Shakil added. “After repeated requests, the police threw me a pistol and I fired some shots at the terrorists.”
As more details of Wednesday’s assault emerged, attention focused on at least two members of staff who took up arms to resist attackers bent on killing them and their students.
Some hailed them as heroes, as the country digested an attack which bore similarities to the massacre, in late 2014, of 134 pupils at an army-run school in Peshawar, about 30 km (19 miles) from where this week’s violence occurred.
Others questioned whether teachers should be armed, as many are, because it goes against the ideals of the profession.
Such a dilemma may have been far from the mind of chemistry professor Hamid Hussain, as he locked himself inside a room with colleagues after gunmen stormed an accommodation block on the university campus.
When the assailants broke down the door, Hussain fired several rounds from his pistol, according to Shabir Ahmad Khan, an English department lecturer taking cover in an adjacent washroom.
“They carried on heavy shooting and I was preparing myself for death, but then they did not enter the washroom and left,” Khan recalled.
Later on in the same building, Hussain fired again at the militants to allow some of his students to get away, surviving pupils told local media. Hussain was subsequently shot and later died from his wounds.
“Kudos to professor Dr Hamid Hussain. Our hero fought bravely n saved many,” Asma Shirazi, a popular talk show host, said on Twitter.
Others, too, have credited the actions of Hussain and Shakil with helping to prevent the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and hand grenades, from spilling more blood.
Bacha Khan University also employed around 50 of its own guards who, witnesses said, fought for close to an hour to keep the gunmen isolated and prevent them from entering the girl’s hostel as the police and army arrived.
Pakistan army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said the security guards responded “very well” to the attack before reinforcements reached them.
In the wake of the 2014 school massacre, teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is located, were offered weapons training. Yet some are wary of arming teachers and encouraging them to engage in battle.
Gun ownership is common in Pakistan, owing to liberal licensing laws, and particularly so in the semi-autonomous tribal belt near the Afghan border where the threat of militant violence is high.
Jamil Chitrali, president of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa University Teaching Staff Association, said more teachers were now carrying personal weapons, as security had worsened.
“Arms are against the norms of my profession,” he said. “I am teaching principles and morality in the class. How I can carry a gun?”
Four gunmen, all since killed, were involved in Wednesday’s attack, officials said. They used the cover of thick fog to scale the campus’ rear walls, before storming student dormitories and classrooms and executing people at will.
Some 3,000 students were enrolled at the university, many living on campus, while hundreds of visitors had arrived to hear a poetry recital to commemorate the life of local Pashtun nationalist hero and pacifist Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, after whom the university is named.
The provincial government declared a day of mourning on Thursday as grieving families buried their dead and survivors recalled their ordeal.
Who was to blame remains a mystery. A senior commander of the Pakistan Taliban, Umar Mansoor, on Wednesday claimed responsibility, but an official spokesman for the group later denied involvement, calling the attack “un-Islamic”.
The hardline Islamist movement was believed to be behind the school massacre just over a year ago, and educational institutions are an increasingly common target for militants wanting to frighten the public.
Pakistan has killed and arrested hundreds of suspected Taliban militants in the last year under a major crackdown against a group fighting to overthrow the government and install a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
The army said on Thursday the attack in Charsadda, near Peshawar, was coordinated from across the border inside Afghanistan, according to its investigations.
Army chief General Raheel Sharif has called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan to ask their help in locating those it holds responsible for the assault, army spokesman Bajwa said on Twitter.
Editing by Mike Collett-White