Porous border, residents’ support behind APS tragedy: probe body

Updated 26 Sep 2020

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In this file photo, a man places a rose after lighting candles in front of portraits of the victims of the APS attack during a vigil in Lahore on Dec 19, 2014. ─ Reuters/File
In this file photo, a man places a rose after lighting candles in front of portraits of the victims of the APS attack during a vigil in Lahore on Dec 19, 2014. ─ Reuters/File

ISLAMABAD: A judicial commission appointed around two years ago to inquire into the Dec 16, 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar has observed in its report that the tragic incident plagued success stories of the armed forces which otherwise deserved deification.

Equally incomprehensible is the inertia on part of the Askari Guards as well as the deputed static guards to the initial heavy firing and blasts by terrorists until Mobile Vigilance Team (MVT) patrolling in the vicinity and Quick Response Force (QRF) arrived, regretted the 525-page inquiry report that was furnished before the Supreme Court on Friday.

The deadly attack had left 147 people, including 132 schoolchildren, martyred when militants had stormed the APS-Warsak school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital around six years ago.

A three-judge SC bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed, on Friday ordered the federal government to make public the report of the commission that completed it on June 26, 2020. The court had appointed one-member judicial commission comprising Justice Mohammad Ibrahim Khan of the Peshawar High Court on Oct 5, 2018 to hold inquiry into the incident.

Commission was formed in Oct 2018 to investigate attack on Army Public School in Peshawar

The court had ordered Attorney General for Pakistan Khalid Jawed Khan last month to get the federal government’s instructions regarding the judicial commission’s report.

The report, which comprises statements of the aggrieved families, evidence led by the bureaucracy, police and military as well as discussions and observations, highlighted the belated response to the terror attack. Had the force shown a little response and could engage the militants in the very beginning of the attack, the impact of the incident might have been less, the report highlighted. Nevertheless, the movement of the militants towards the adjacent toddlers’ block was restricted by the valiant soldiers of the MVT-2 and QRF on their arrival and thus further devastation in that block was foiled, it said.

While expressing sympathy with the parents of the martyred students, the chief justice during the hearing assured the families that those responsible for the tragedy would not be spared.

The Dec 16 incident was not a painful and unfortunate event for them only, but the horrendous act also jolted every citizen of our beloved land, observed Justice Mohammad Khan in the report.

It said the country remained at war with the enemy that carried occult activities and let loose terrorism, which hit the highest points in 2013-14, but this did not obligate the authorities to hold that the country’s sensitive installations and soft targets could be forsaken as a prey to the terrorist attack.

Entry of terrorists

The entry of the terrorists from the cross-border (Afghanistan) till their infiltration into the doomed school’s perimeter befooling the security apparatus could be attributed to mainly the porous north-west border and Afghan refugees’ movement across the border in view of the understanding inter se the government and international agency regarding refugee’s unrestrained movement, the report said. Above all, it added, the assistance provided to the fanatics from the inhabitants of locality, especially in this particular episode, was palpable and unpardonable.

“I can perceive it with utmost honesty that when one’s own blood and flesh commit treachery and betrayal, the result would always be devastating,” Justice Khan observed deploring that it diminished and compromised the security apparatus efforts and augmented and intensified the accomplishment rate of the enemy’s nefarious plan.

No agency, how capable and able in terms of manpower, infrastructure and technology could outperform the impact of any attack effortlessly when infidels are within the inside, the judicial commission reported.

The report mentioned the three-layered security protocol namely the static guards at the outer gates, two MVTs patrolling in the vicinity of the APS for vigil, the QRF destined at a distance of around 10 minutes from the APS and the Rapid Response Force (RRF) of police for response within Peshawar cantonment. One MVT was beguiled towards the smoke erupted from the vehicle set ablaze by the terrorists as part of their plan while leaving the premises of APS unattended, it said, adding this act alone gave an edge to the militants to break into APS from backside where the MVT had to patrol.

Though the other MVT did respond it wasn’t capable to buy the much needed time for the QRF and the RRF to overpower the terrorists before they could cause the catastrophe.

The generic threat alert issued by the National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta) was in fact attributed to all the academic institutions run by the armed forces with the sole objective to target the army families as retribution for the unstoppable and successful military operations against the terrorists hideouts particularly operations Zarb-i-Azb and Khyber-I, the report said.

The report also mentioned how the aggrieved parents moaned that the operation was considerably delayed because of belated arrival of the Special Services Group (SSG) Commandoes without any plausible reason, whereby the terrorist acquired enough time to accomplish their plan of causing maximum damage in terms of loss of lives of innocent souls.

The aggrieved parents also recorded their reservations regarding the capacity of the militants to bring huge arms and ammunitions enabling them to engage in fighting till late hours of the day.

According to the report, most of the aggrieved families complained that notwithstanding their arrival at the site, the police were not allowed to enter the premises, giving the parents skewed hope of safety of their children. They questioned how the combat operation and evacuation activity could be conducted simultaneously. Though the aggrieved parents themselves observed the activities of military-men/security agencies, they formulated their own opinion based on circumstantial and incidental events happened that day.

The parents questioned when terrorists committed massacre in the first 15 minutes of the attack, why army after arrival could not eliminate the militants sooner? Likewise, the reason of continuation of the battle since morning till late evening shrouded them in mystery, as none could answer them for long till this day of commission’s proceedings. They questioned how the evacuation of Shuhada/injured/survivors and military operation was conducted in chorus? Thus while casting doubt on “genuineness” of the force’s response, they also alleged that the police were not allowed entry into the APS though they had reached ahead of the armed forces on the day of the incident.

They also complained that accurate information was not shared with the curious parents who were in utter despair fearing for their children’s safety on the fateful day and at the end, they found their kids brutally killed and injured by the terrorists.

Justice Khan in his report acknowledged that the anguish endured by the bereaved families was beyond possible stretch of human imagination. Also, the report acknowledged the efforts of the armed forces in consoling and placating the agonies of parents of the shuhada and other victims, compared to the pains taken by such institutions in tragedies of this magnitude elsewhere in the world.

Recommendations

The commission also made certain recommendations such as medical and psychological treatment of the injured, parents and siblings of the Shuhada, provision of free education to the injured, provision of secondary and higher education to the siblings of the Shuhada, naming schools and other prominent places in the name of the Shuhada, conferring the honorary rank of Captain on the Shuhada students etc.

Justice Khan observed that the nation was proud of the sons and daughters who embraced martyrdom in the tragic incident and paid salute to the innocent lives, acknowledging them as the real heroes of the motherland.

The commission also appreciated the role of the Pakistan Military in uprooting the menace of terrorism from the country after the incident and for their unflinching support to the victim families. The armed forces demonstrated valour and endurance throughout their fight against the peril, the report said, adding the bereaved families and armed forces were two limbs of the same body, as the grievance and outcry of the former could be attributed to multilateral factors. No external force, how high or powerful it could be, could intrude and dilute this sacred relationship between the citizens of Pakistan including the bereaved families and the armed forces.

Meanwhile, the federal government assured the court that the recommendations of the commission would be shared with all relevant authorities to ensure strict compliance. The government admitted that it was obligation of the State to continue to provide for the welfare of those injured in the incident and where possible, extend worldly comforts for the members of the bereaved families. The government said the government had also awarded 22 Shuhada with Tamgha-i-Shujaat and Sitara-i-Shujaat (civil awards).

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2020