KABUL, Afghanistan – Islamic State militants in Afghanistan stormed Kabul University on Monday during a book fair with the Iranian ambassador, resulting in hours of gunfire that left at least 22 people dead and 22 wounded in the war-torn country’s largest school. …
Most of the injured were students, and there were fears that the death toll could rise even further, as some of the injured are in critical condition.
This was the second attack on an educational institution in Kabul in the past few weeks.
The Taliban immediately issued a statement denying their involvement in the attack as the rebels continue peace talks with representatives of the US-backed Kabul government to help the United States finally withdraw from Afghanistan. Later that day, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
As the attack continued, students and teachers were seen leaving the part of the campus where law and journalism schools are located, with hand grenades exploding and machine guns being heard. Dozens of Afghan commandos surrounded the campus, driving teachers and students to safety.
The chaos subsided as the sun set over the Afghan capital, and Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said all three attackers in the attack had been killed.
The Islamic State group said it is targeting alumni of “judges and investigators belonging to the apostate Afghan government” gathered on campus, according to the SITE intelligence group, which monitors online reports of terrorism.
The IS statement claimed that only two of its fighters were involved, and published photographs of them, which contradicted the Afghan authorities’ report of the three attackers. The statement did not say that IS was intended to attack the Iranian envoy or the book fair.
Last week, IS also reported a brutal attack on a tutoring center in the predominantly Shiite district of the Afghan capital, Dasht-e-Barchi, which killed at least 24 students and injured more than 100 on October 24.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government, known as the intra-Afghan talks, were part of an agreement Washington signed with the rebels in February. They take place in the Arab state of Qatar in the Persian Gulf and are considered Afghanistan’s best chance for peace, although the daily bloodshed continues.
On Monday, five hours after the fighting began, sporadic grenade explosions and automatic gunfire still echoed through the empty streets surrounding the university’s walled compound. Afghan troops stood guard.
Ahmad Samim, a university student, told reporters that he saw militants armed with guns and Kalashnikovs shooting at the school, the oldest in the country, with about 17,000 students. He said the attack took place on the east side of the university, where the faculty of law and journalism is taught.
Afghan media reported that a book exhibition was being held at the university, which was attended by many dignitaries during the shooting. It is reported that none of the high-ranking officials were injured.
While Afghan officials declined to discuss the book fair, Iran’s semi-official news agency ISNA reported Sunday that Iranian Ambassador Bahador Aminian and cultural attaché Mojtaba Noruzi were scheduled to open the fair, which was attended by some 40 Iranian publishers. Iranian state television reported that the attack had occurred, but did not provide information on its officials.
Iranian diplomats have previously been attacked in Afghanistan, incidents that have led to a dangerous escalation of tensions between the two countries. In 1998, Iran held the Taliban responsible for the deaths of nine Iranian diplomats working at its consulate in northern Afghanistan and sent reinforcements to the Iranian-Afghan border, which is 950 kilometers (580 miles) long.
The Afghan branch of IS has declared war on the country’s Shia Muslim minority and has organized dozens of attacks since its inception in the region in 2014. Earlier this year, there was a terrible attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul – also in the Dasht-e-Barchi area blamed the Islamic State group. As a result of this attack, the militants killed 25 people, many of them newborns and mothers.
Schools have also been attacked in the past. Last year, a bomb blast outside the gates of Kabul University killed eight people. In 2016, gunmen attacked the American University in Kabul, killing 13 people.
The violence was relentless, even as negotiations in Qatar to end more than four decades of war in Afghanistan were excruciatingly slow, despite repeated demands for a reduction in violence.
A deal between the US and the Taliban in February helped withdraw US and NATO troops from Afghanistan and prepared the ground for the negotiations taking place in Doha.
The architect of Washington’s deal with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, returned to the region last week, citing deep frustration with escalating violence in Afghanistan. On Monday, Khalilzad was in neighboring Pakistan, where he met with a powerful army commander. Some details of the meeting were made public, but it is widely believed that Khalilzad pushed for Pakistani help to push the Taliban into an agreement to reduce violence.
Although their political office is in Qatar, the Taliban’s governing councils are located in Pakistan, and Islamabad plays a critical role in forcing insurgents into peace talks.
While Khalilzad and the Afghan government have called for a ceasefire, or at least a reduction in violence, the Taliban backed out of the ceasefire, saying a permanent cessation of hostilities would be part of the negotiations.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry condemned the attack in Kabul on Monday, calling it a “terrorist attack” that was particularly “heinous because it was directed against an educational institution.” Last week, a suicide bomber attacked a religious school in northwest Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, killing eight students and injuring more than 120 people.
Also on Monday, a car hit a mine on the side of a road in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, killing at least seven civilians, most of them women and children, governor’s spokesman Omer Zvak said.