ISLAMABAD -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai returned to her native Pakistan early Thursday for the first time since she was shot in 2012 by Taliban militants angered at her championing of education for girls. Tight security greeted the now-20-year-old university student upon her arrival at Benazir Bhutto International Airport.
Local television showed her with her parents in the lounge at the airport before leaving in a convoy of nearly 15 vehicles, many of them occupied by heavily armed police.
Hours after her arrival, Yousafzai met with Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who praised her and said he was happy to welcome her back to Pakistan, where he said terrorism has been eliminated.
Yousafzai said she was excited to be back. With tears in her eyes, she recalled having to leave the country for treatment when she was shot. At a ceremony at Abbasi's office, the university student said she had always thought about returning to Pakistan.
"It is now actually happening and I am here," she said, vowing to continue to campaign for the education of girls.
Her return had been shrouded in secrecy and it wasn't immediately clear how long she would be in the city or whether she planned to travel to her hometown of Mingora, where the shooting occurred.
As news broke about Yousafzai's arrival in Pakistan's, her countrymen welcomed her.
Cricketer turned opposition leader Imran Khan's party said Yousafzai's return was a sign of the defeat of extremism in the country.
Mohammad Hassan, one of Yousafzai's cousins in the northwestern town of Mingora, said it was one of the happiest days of his life. He said he was not sure whether Yousafzai would visit her home town, where schoolchildren were jubilant on her return, though they wished Yousafzai had visited Mingora so that they could greet her.
Javeria Khan, a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Yousafzai's hometown, said she was excited about Yousafzai's return.
"I wish I could see her in Swat. I wish she had come here, but we welcome her," she said, as she sat among schoolchildren.
Marvi Memon, a senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, also welcomed Yousafzai, saying it was a pleasant surprise for her to see Yousafzai back home.
"What an incredible surprise I woke up to this morning" to know that Yousafzai is back along with her parents, she said. Memon said it was a proud day for Pakistan that Yousafzai was back in Pakistan.
Yousafzai was just 14 years old but already known for her activism when Taliban gunman boarded the school van in which she was sitting and demanded to know "who is Malala?" before shooting her in the head. Two of her classmates were also injured. In critical condition, Yousafzai was flown to the garrison city of Rawalpindi before being airlifted to Birmingham in Britain.
She has since spoken at the United Nations, mesmerizing the world with her eloquence and her unrelenting commitment to the promotion of girls' education through the Malala Fund, a book, meetings with refugees and other activism.
She was awarded the Nobel in 2014, along with Indian child-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, and said on the day she collected the prize that "Education is one of the blessings of life, and one of its necessities."
She remained in Britain after undergoing medical treatment there and was accepted to the University of Oxford last year.
At home in Pakistan, however, she has been condemned by some as a Western mouthpiece with some even suggesting on social media that the shooting was staged. Yousafzai has repeatedly responded to the criticism with a grace far outstripping her years, often saying education is neither Western, nor Eastern.
Often when she has spoken in public she has championed her home country and spoken in her native Pashto language, always promising to return to her home.
On March 23 when Pakistan celebrated Pakistan Day, Yousafzai tweeted, "I cherish fond memories of home, of playing cricket on rooftops and singing the national anthem in school. Happy Pakistan Day!"
Local television channels have been showing her return to Pakistan with some replaying the horror of her shooting and the rush to get her treatment.
Pakistani officials say they captured several suspects after the attack on Yousafzai, but the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, is still on the run and believed to be hiding in neighboring Afghanistan.
Fazlullah's spokesman, Mohammad Khurasani, earlier this month said Fazlullah's son was among 21 "holy warriors" killed by missiles fired by a U.S. drone at a seminary in Afghanistan.