PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Many schools in Pakistan's Swat Valley closed their doors in protest Wednesday and the country's army chief vowed to fight on against militants as anger erupted across the nation over the Taliban attack on a 14-year-old activist famed for promoting girls' education.
Malala Yousufzai was in the intensive care unit at a military hospital in Peshawar, recovering from an early morning surgery to remove a bullet from her neck a day after the attack. A Pakistani official said doctors thought she was out of danger.
The shooting of Malala on her way home from school Tuesday in the town of Mingora in the volatile Swat Valley horrified Pakistanis across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum. A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking schoolchildren and shot her in the head and neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded.
The country's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the attack. The powerful army chief rarely makes such public pronouncements, even when it comes to strictly military matters.
"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," Kayani said.
He vowed the military would not bow to terrorists like those who shot the young activist.
"We will fight, regardless of the cost we will prevail," he said.
He also visited the hospital to get a first-hand account of her condition, the statement said.
Malala is admired across Pakistan for exposing the Taliban's atrocities and advocating for girls' education in the face of religious extremism.
She began writing a blog when she was just 11 under a pseudonym for the BBC about life under the Taliban, and began speaking out publicly in 2009 about the need for girls' education. The Taliban strongly opposes education for women, and the group has claimed responsibility for the Tuesday attack.
Private schools in the Swat Valley were closed Wednesday in a sign of protest over the shooting and in solidarity with Malala, said Ahmed Shah, the chairman of an association of private schools. Flags in front of the Mingora government headquarters were at half-staff, and police officers stood guard outside her family's house.
A demonstration was expected to be held later Wednesday at the press club in Mingora and another one was under way in the eastern city of Lahore. In the southern port city of Karachi, the city's main political party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, was having a service at their headquarters to pray for the girl's recovery.
The front pages of both English- and Urdu-language newspapers were plastered with stories and pictures of Malala. Television channels constantly replayed footage of her being taken to the hospital in Peshawar as well as clips from previous appearances she'd made while promoting girls' education.
The news that surgeons were able to remove a bullet lodged in Malala's neck was greeted with relief by many. A team of army and civilian surgeons have been treating her at a military hospital in Peshawar where she was airlifted after the Tuesday shooting.
The operation to remove the bullet took hours because there were complications, said the information minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Mian Iftikhar Hussain.
"She is improving. But she is still unconscious," he said. Hussain said there was no decision yet whether the girl needed to be taken abroad for further treatment, but said that doctors felt she was out of danger.
At one time the picturesque Swat Valley — nicknamed the Switzerland of Pakistan — was a popular tourist destination for Pakistanis. Honeymooners vacationed along the river.
Then the Taliban in 2007 began infiltrating the valley just 280 kilometers (175 miles) from the capital, eventually assuming near-total control of the region before being ejected in a massive Pakistani military operation in 2009.
The takeover, as well as the Taliban's brutal treatment of civilians in the region, shocked many Pakistanis, who considered militancy to be a far-away problem in Afghanistan or Pakistan's rugged tribal regions.
But Tuesday's attack demonstrated that the Taliban have not been eradicated from the valley and are trying to make their presence felt even three years after the offensive to oust them.
Malala was nominated last year for the International Children's Peace Prize, which is organized by the Dutch organization KidsRights to highlight the work of children around the world. She also was honored last year with one of Pakistan's highest awards for civilians for her bravery.