The Pakistani Taliban shot a teenage children's rights activist in the head on her school bus to avenge her campaigns for the right to an education in the militants' former stronghold of Swat.
Many in Pakistan reacted with shock and revulsion to the shooting on Tuesday of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was flown to intensive care in the northwestern city of Peshawar where doctors are struggling to save her life.
Police said two other girls were also wounded in the attack on Malala's school bus, which the Taliban claimed, saying anyone who spoke out against them would suffer a similar fate.
A team of senior doctors late Tuesday completed her medical examination in a combined military hospital (CMH) and described her condition as critical.
"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 authorised 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.
Malala won international recognition for highlighting Taliban atrocities in Swat with a blog for the BBC three years ago, when the Islamist militants led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah burned girls' schools and terrorised the valley.
Her struggle resonated with tens of thousands of girls who were being denied an education by Islamist militants across northwest Pakistan, where the government has been fighting local Taliban since 2007.
She received the first-ever national peace award from the Pakistani government last year, and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by advocacy group KidsRights Foundation in 2011.
Tuesday's shooting in broad daylight in Mingora raises serious questions about security more than three years after the army claimed to have crushed a Taliban insurgency.
Police accounts of the attack changed during the day. Initially, an officer told AFP Malala was shot as she was getting on the bus, then later that a gunman had flagged down the vehicle some distance away.
"One of them, who had a small beard, went inside and asked the children which was Malala," Shah told AFP.
"He fired three shots. One bullet hit Malala's head. The second hit the shoulder of her school friend and the third inflicted a minor leg injury to another girl on the bus," the policeman added.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP the Islamist group carried out the attack after repeatedly warning Malala to stop speaking out against them.
"She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban," he said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We warned her several times to stop speaking against the Taliban and to stop supporting Western NGOs, and to come to the path of Islam."
The Taliban controlled much of Swat from 2007-2009 but were supposedly driven out by an army offensive in July 2009.
President Asif Ali Zardari strongly condemned the attack, but said it would not shake Pakistan's resolve to fight Islamist militants or the government's determination to support women's education.
The United States denounced the "barbaric" and "cowardly" attack.
"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," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International condemned the "shocking act of violence" against a girl bravely fighting for an education.
"This attack highlights the extremely dangerous climate human rights activists face in northwestern Pakistan, where particularly female activists live under constant threats from the Taliban and other militant groups," it said.
Provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said Malala had been targeted as "an icon of peace", calling for a sweeping military offensive against all Islamist militants in northwest Pakistan.
Malala was 11 when she wrote the blog on the BBC Urdu website, which at the time was anonymous. She also featured in two New York Times documentaries.
In a 2011 BBC news report she 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.
"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," she said.
Despite sporadic outbreaks of violence, the government is trying to encourage tourists to return to Swat, which had been popular with holiday makers for its stunning mountains, balmy summer weather and winter skiing.
On Wednesday, state carrier Pakistan International Airlines is scheduled to hold a test flight to Saidu Sharif, Mingora's twin town, for the first time since flights were suspended due to the insurgency.