Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head and neck when gunmen fired on her school bus in the Swat valley, northwest of the capital, Islamabad. Two other girls were also wounded, police said.
Yousufzai became famous for speaking out against the Pakistani Taliban at a time when even the government seemed to be appeasing the hardline Islamists.
The government agreed to a ceasefire with the Taliban in Swat in early 2009, effectively recognising insurgent control of the valley whose lakes and mountains had long been a tourist attraction.
The Taliban set up courts, executed residents and closed girls’ schools, including the one that Yousufzai attended. A documentary team filmed her weeping as she explained her ambition to be a doctor.
“My friend came to me and said, ‘for God’s sake, answer me honestly, is our school going to be attacked by the Taliban?’,”
Yousufzai, then 11, wrote in a blog published by the BBC.
“During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taliban would object.”
The army launched an offensive and retook control of Swat later that year, and Yousufzai later received the country’s highest civilian award. She was also nominated for international awards for child activists.
Since then, she has received numerous threats. On Tuesday, gunmen arrived at her school and asked for her by name, witnesses told police. Yousufzai was shot when she came out of class and went to a bus.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said his group was behind the shooting.
“She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas,” he said, referring the main ethnic group in northwest Pakistan and southern and eastern Afghanistan. Most members of the Taliban come from conservative Pashtun tribes.
Doctors were struggling to save Yousufzai, said Lal Noor, a doctor at the Saidu Sharif Teaching Hospital in the Swat valley’s main town of Mingora.
Latest: “We have thoroughly examined her, she is in critical condition. The bullet travelled from her head and then lodged in the back shoulder, near the neck,” a doctor in the CMH told AFP, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“She is in the intensive care unit and semi-conscious, although not on the ventilator,” he said, adding that the next three to four days would be crucial.
Earlier another doctor in Saidu Sharif Medical Complex in Swat’s main town of Mingora had said the bullet penetrated her skull but missed her brain, leaving her out of danger.
Update 2: Doctors said they were forced to begin operating in the middle of the night after Yousufzai developed swelling in the left portion of her brain.
They removed a bullet from her body near her spinal cord during a three-hour operation that they finished at about 5 a.m. (8 p.m. EDT on Tuesday).
“She is still unconscious and kept in the intensive care unit,” said Mumtaz Khan, head of a panel of doctors taking care of Yousufzai in a military hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
One of the girls wounded with Yousufzai is in critical condition and the other is recovering and out of danger.
Update 3: A special aircraft had been sent to Peshawar in case doctors say she should be moved to the United Arab Emirates, said Zaibullah Khan, general manager of the city’s airport.