ISLAMABAD – 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.
At the age of 11, she began writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley. After the military ousted the militants in 2009, she began publicly speaking out about the need for girls' education, something the Taliban strongly opposes.
The group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, vowed to target her again.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said authorities have identified her attackers and know how they got into the valley, but no arrests have been made.
The news that surgeons were able to remove a bullet lodged in Malala's neck was greeted with relief by many. But even with such an outpouring of grief and outrage in Pakistan over the young girl's shooting, it was unclear whether it would indeed trigger a shift in public opinion against the Taliban.
Many in Pakistan view the group as waging a noble fight against U.S. troops that invaded another Muslim country, Afghanistan, and they argue that the Taliban problem within Pakistan will fade once American forces leave. They argue that Taliban attacks against targets in Pakistan aim to punish the government in Islamabad for its alliance with Washington.
"Pakistan society is polarized on who is doing terrorism," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. He said that divide has been evident even in the public condemnations of the attack, with some people speaking out strongly against the Taliban while others have criticized the government for failing to protect Malala.
Omar R. Quraishi, the editorial pages editor at Pakistan's English-language Express Tribune newspaper, questioned whether the public outrage had reached such a critical mass that it would indeed mark a turning point.
He said Kayani's strong statement in support of the girl may be an attempt to gauge whether there is enough public outrage to support a sharp response from the army against the Taliban. The general, said Quraishi, doesn't want to be in a position where people are asking: "Why are you fighting America's wars?"
The Pakistani military has been waging a deadly fight in the tribal regions against militants at a cost of about 4,000 soldiers killed. But critics, especially in the U.S., accuse the army of going after militants that attack the Pakistani state while cultivating others that it feels will be useful someday in Afghanistan.
Still, there is a precedent in Pakistan of Taliban excesses provoking public outrage, which the military has then capitalized on to move against the militants.
In 2009, after a video surfaced of militants publicly whipping a woman, purportedly in the Swat Valley, triggered a wave of public revulsion, the army felt empowered enough to launch a major offensive against the Taliban in the area. Government forces flushed the militants out of the scenic valley, but failed to capture or kill the movement's senior leaders.
Santana reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Sherin Zada in Mingora, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Adil Jawad in Karachi contributed to this report.