Prayers are being offered across Pakistan for the recovery of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old education rights activist who has undergone surgery to remove a bullet lodged in her skull.
She was shot on Tuesday on her way home from school in Mingora, the main town in the Swat Valley region of northwest Pakistan, and is being treated at Peshawar's Combined Military Hospital. She remains in critical condition, family members told Al Jazeera.
Pakistan's national airline has placed an air ambulance on standby to take Yousafzai abroad for treatment if needed, government sources said, but medics are wary of lengthy travel times given her unstable condition, while officials have rushed to issue her a passport.
Students said that Yousafzai "is like our sister".
"We pray for her earliest recovery and well-being," said 14-year-old Shamaila. "We also pray that other students can benefit from Malala's enlightening views."
'Where is Malala?'
Yousafzai was with her classmates, taking a school van home following an examination at the Khushal public school, when unidentified men stopped the vehicle, asking if it was the transport from that school.
When told that it was, one man asked: "Where is Malala?"
As she was identified, the assailant reportedly drew a pistol and shot Yousafzai in the head and the neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded.
"The man started firing a handgun [...] then I don't know what happened to me and found myself in hospital," said Shazia Ramazan, a friend of Yousafzai who was shot in the hand.
Doctors at the Saidu Sharif Medical Complex in Mingora said the bullet penetrated Yousafzai's skull but missed her brain, leaving her out of immediate danger.
Ahmed Shah Yousafzai, Malala's uncle, said on Tuesday there was "strict security inside and outside the hospital", after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, said the group had repeatedly warned Yousafzai to stop speaking out against them.
"She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us," he said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban.
"We warned her several times to stop speaking against the Taliban and to stop supporting Western non-governmental organisations, and to come to the path of Islam."
The Taliban said it was not only "allowed" to target young girls, but it was "obligatory" when such a person "leads a campaign against Islam and sharia".
The spokesman also referred to the Quranic story of Hazrat Khizar, who killed a young child, justifying it to Prophet Musa (Moses in other religions), by saying the boy would overburden his pious parents with his disobedience, and that God would "replace" the boy with a more obedient son.
Ehsan said that the Pakistani Taliban had not banned education for girls, "instead, our crime is that we tried to bring the education system for both boy and girls under sharia.
"We are deadly against co-education and secular education systems, and Sharia orders us to be against it".
The group also criticised media coverage of the shooting, saying: "After this incident, [the] media poured out all of its smelly propaganda against Taliban mujahideen with their poisonous tongues.
" ... will the blind media pay any attention to the hundreds of respectful sisters whom are in the secret detention centres of ISI [Pakistan's spy agency] and suffering by their captivity?
"Would you like to put an eye on more than 3,000 young men killed in secret detention centres, whose bodies are found in different areas of Swat, claimed to be killed in encounters and died by cardiac arrest?"
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President Asif Ali Zardari strongly condemned the attack, but said it would not shake Pakistan's resolve to battle fighters or the government's determination to support women's education. Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, prime minister, called Yousafzai "a daughter of Pakistan".
Private schools in the Swat Valley shut their doors on Wednesday, in protest at the attack, though government schools are open as per their normal routine.
Further demonstrations against the Taliban were also expected in the Swat district later on Wednesday.
Victoria Nuland, the US state department spokeswoman, said: "Directing violence at children is barbaric. It's cowardly. And our hearts go out to her and the others who were wounded, as well as their families."
The local chapter of the TTP, led by Maulana Fazlullah, controlled much of Swat from 2007 to 2009, but were ousted by an army offensive in July 2009.
Local reports indicate, however, that the group was only driven into the surrounding areas, rather than being wiped out, and it has since staged a resurgence.
Tuesday's shooting in broad daylight in Mingora, the main town of Swat Valley, raises serious questions about security more than three years after the army claimed to have crushed the local Taliban.
Yousafzai rose to international prominence as an 11-year-old in 2009, writing an anonymised diary for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban, before featuring in two documentaries made by New York Times journalists. She also featured in an Al Jazeera documentary.
She had famously stood against the TTP's attempts to stop girls from going to school, and was awarded the National Peace Award for Youth.
The international children's advocacy group KidsRights Foundation nominated her for the International Children's Peace Prize, making her the first Pakistani girl put forward for the award.
Her struggle resonated with tens of thousands of girls who were being denied an education by the Taliban and other armed groups across northwest Pakistan, where the government has been fighting such groups since 2007.
In a 2011 BBC News report, Yusafzai read out an extract of her diary that gave a sense of the fear she endured under the Taliban.
"I was very much scared because the Taliban announced yesterday that girls should stop going to schools," she said.
"Today our head teacher told the school assembly that school uniform is no longer compulsory and from tomorrow onwards, girls should come in their normal dresses. Out of 27, only 11 girls attended the school today."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies