By Jibran Ahmad
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani surgeons removed a bullet on Wednesday from a 14-year-old girl shot by the Taliban for speaking out against the militants and promoting education for girls, doctors said.
Malala Yousufzai was in critical condition after gunmen shot her in the head and neck on Tuesday as she left school. Two other girls were also wounded.
Yousufzai began standing up to the Pakistani Taliban when she was just 11, when the government had effectively ceded control of the Swat Valley where she lives to the militants.
Her courage made her a national hero and many Pakistanis were shocked by her shooting.
General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of Pakistan's powerful army, visited her in hospital and condemned her attackers.
"The cowards who attacked Malala and her fellow students, have shown time and again how little regard they have for human life and how low they can fall in their cruel ambition to impose their twisted ideology," Kayani said in a statement.
The military said it had a simple message, which it wrote in capital letters in the statement to add emphasis: "WE REFUSE TO BOW BEFORE TERROR."
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. (0000 GMT).
"She is still unconscious and kept in the intensive care unit," said Mumtaz Khan, head of a team 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.
The military flew Yousufzai from her home in Swat, northwest of Islamabad, to Peshawar on Tuesday.
The shooting was denounced across Pakistan. The front pages of national newspapers carried pictures of a bandaged and bloody Yousufzai being brought to hospital.
"Hate targets hope" the Express Tribune said in a headline.
Schools closed across Swat in protest over the shooting and a small demonstration was held in her hometown of Mingora. Another was planned in the eastern city of Lahore for later on Wednesday.
"All Pakistanis should come together and raise their voices against such acts. If they do not do this, then they should mentally prepare themselves for their own children's fate to be like Malala's," said Saeeda Diep, an organizer of the Lahore protest.
Many commentators said Yousufzai's courage contrasted with that of many of the country's leaders, who fear that challenging militants will make them targets.
"PEACE WILL BE SHAKEN"
Pakistan's president, prime minister, and heads of various opposition parties joined human rights group Amnesty International and the United Nations in condemning the attack.
"Pakistan's future belongs to Malala and brave young girls like her. History won't remember the cowards who tried to kill her at school," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Twitter.
The attack was also condemned by many leaders of ethnic Pashtun tribes in northwest Pakistan.
"This attack is against Pashtun and Islamic practices," said Khurshid Kaka Ji, leader of a jirga, or tribal council, in Swat, a one-time tourist destination of peaks and meadows where the military has battled the Taliban intermittently since 2007.
"The security forces and police deployed should capture the attackers and punish them. If they do not catch these people, then the peace that Swat has gained through bloodshed will be shaken."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack saying Yousufzai was "pro-West", had been promoting Western culture and had been speaking out against them.
They justified shooting her by citing instances from the Koran when a child or woman was killed.
"Any female that, by any means, plays a role in the war against mujahideen should be killed," said Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan, using the term for Islamic holy warriors to refer to the Taliban.
"We are dead against co-education and a secular education system."
President Asif Ali Zardari said he had directed that Yousufzai be sent abroad for medical care.
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.
Imran Khan, a former cricketer turned politician who recently led a march into northwestern Pakistan protesting against U.S. drone strikes, said he was willing to pay for Yousufzai's medical treatment in Pakistan or abroad.
"Brave girl. Praying for her recovery," he said on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Editing by Robert Birsel)