KARACHI, Oct 9— A Taliban gunman shot and seriously wounded a 14-year-old schoolgirl and activist in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, singling out a widely known champion of girls’ education and a potent symbol of resistance to militant ideology.
The attack occurred in Mingora, the valley’s main town, when masked gunmen stopped a bus carrying schoolgirls who had just taken an exam and sought out the 14-year-old, Malala Yousafzai, shooting her twice.
Ms. Yousafzai, who won a national peace prize last year, was shot in the head and the neck, while two other people on the bus suffered lighter injuries, local health officials said. After emergency treatment, Ms. Yousafzai was taken by helicopter to a military hospital in the provincial capital, Peshawar, where doctors said she was in stable but critical condition late Tuesday.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying Ms. Yousafzai had been targeted for her criticism of the Taliban and because it considered her human rights campaigning to be an “obscenity.”
“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” a Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said by phone from an undisclosed location. “She considers Obama as her ideal leader.”
The Taliban publicly placed Ms. Yousafzai on its assassination hit list this spring. Mr. Ehsan added that if she survived, the militants would try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson,” he said.
Although militant violence is a daily occurrence in Pakistan, the assault on an eloquent schoolgirl, who sprang to public attention in 2009 by documenting her determination to continue school under the Taliban, sent shock waves across Pakistan.
“She symbolizes the brave girls of Swat,” said Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker who has worked extensively in Swat. “She knew her voice was important, so she spoke up for the rights of children. Even adults didn’t have a vision like hers.”
Girls’ education in Pakistan has been a rallying cry against the Taliban for some here. In other districts close to the Afghan border, militants have shut down schools in recent years as a way of demonstrating their defiance of the national government.
Mustafa Qadri, a Pakistan researcher with Amnesty International, said the attack on Ms. Yousafzai “highlights the extremely dangerous climate many human rights activists face in northwestern Pakistan, where female activists in particular live under constant threats from the Taliban and other militant groups.”
Fazal Rabbi, a family friend in Swat, described Ms. Yousafzai as a girl of “extraordinary qualities.” In Parliament, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf urged his countrymen to battle the “mind-set” behind such attacks. “She is our daughter,” he said.
On the Internet, the country’s beleaguered progressives seethed with frustration and anger. “Come on, brothers, be REAL MEN. Kill a school girl,” one media commentator, Nadeem F. Paracha, said in an acerbic Twitter post.
Ms. Yousafzai came to public attention in 2009 as the Pakistani Taliban swept through Swat, a picturesque valley once famed for its culture of music and tolerance and as a destination for honeymooning couples.
Her father ran one of the last schools to defy Taliban orders to end female education. As an 11-year-old, his daughter Malala — named after a mythic female figure in Pashtun culture — wrote an anonymous blog documenting her experiences for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” she wrote in one post titled “I Am Afraid.”
Later in 2009, the army launched a sweeping operation against the Taliban in the area, displacing many militants into neighboring districts or across the border into Afghanistan.
Ms. Yousafzai continued to grow in prominence, becoming a powerful voice for the rights of children in the conflict-affected area. In 2011, she was nominated for an International Children’s Peace Prize; later, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister at the time, awarded her Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.
In recent months, she led a delegation of children’s rights activists, sponsored by Unicef, that made representations to provincial politicians in Peshawar.
“We found her to be very bold, and it inspired every one of us,” said another student in the group, Fatima Aziz, 15.
“She had this vision, big dreams, that she was going to come into politics and bring about change,” said Ms. Minallah, the documentary maker.
Pakistan’s military has long held the 2009 Swat operation as an example of its ability to conduct successful counterinsurgency drives on its own soil. The shooting on Tuesday, however, was a stark reminder that the Taliban remain a deadly force.
“This is not a good sign. It’s very worrisome,” Kamran Khan, the most senior government official in Swat, said by phone. A search operation was under way to capture the attackers, he added.
In recent months, Taliban fighters have been gradually slipping back into Swat, attacking senior community leaders. On Aug. 3, a Taliban gunman shot and wounded Zahid Khan, the president of the local hoteliers association and a senior community leader, in Mingora.
A senior local official said it was one of three attempted targeted killings by the Taliban in recent months.
The Swat Taliban are a subgroup of the wider Pakistani Taliban movement based in South Waziristan. The leader of the Swat Taliban, Maulvi Fazlullah, rose to prominence in 2007 through an FM radio station that espoused Islamist ideology. He is believed to be sheltering across the border in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
The Pakistani Army virtually runs Swat, either directly through a large military presence in the valleys, or indirectly through armed militias that keep the Taliban at bay. But the military has also been accused of gross human rights abuses, particularly after a leaked videotape in 2010 showed uniformed men apparently massacring Taliban prisoners.
In response to sharp criticism, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, announced an inquiry into the shootings. An army spokesman said on Tuesday it had not yet completed its work.
Shah Rasool, the police chief in Swat, said that all roads leading out of Mingora had been barricaded and that more than 30 militant suspects had been taken into custody.
Reporting was contributed by Sana ul Haq from Mingora, Pakistan; Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan; Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad, Pakistan; and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi.