Gunmen have stormed Kabul University as it was hosting a book fair attended by the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan, leading to a gun battle lasting several hours and leaving at least 19 people dead and 22 wounded.
The ministry’s spokesman, Tariq Arian, said three attackers participated in the assault on Monday, all of whom were killed in the ensuing firefight.
The Taliban issued a statement denying responsibility for the attack. The insurgents are in peace talks with the US-backed government. The negotiations, taking place in Qatar, aim to enable the US to finally withdraw from its longest war, though daily bloodshed continues, while an Islamic State affiliate has launched its own attacks on Shia Muslims in the country.
Five hours into the fighting, sporadic grenade explosions and automatic weapons fire echoed down the empty streets surrounding the fenced university compound as Afghan troops stood guard. Earlier, students were seen fleeing from the site.
“Unfortunately, there are casualties,” Arian said, without elaborating.
Ahmad Samim, a university student, told journalists he saw militants armed with pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles firing at the school, the country’s oldest, which has about 17,000 students. He said the attack happened at the university’s eastern side, which houses its law and journalism faculty.
Afghan media reported that a book exhibition was being held at the university and attended by a number of dignitaries at the time of the shooting. While Afghan officials declined to discuss the fair, Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency reported on Sunday that the Iranian ambassador, Bahador Aminian, and the cultural attache Mojtaba Noroozi were scheduled to inaugurate the fair, which was hosting about 40 Iranian publishers. Iranian state television reported on the attack but did not offer information on the officials.
Iranian diplomats have been targeted previously by attacks in the country, nearly provoking a war between the two countries. In 1998, Iran held the Taliban responsible for the deaths of nine Iranian diplomats who were working in its consulate in northern Afghanistan and sent reinforcements to the border the countries share.
No group immediately took responsibility for the attack but suspicion immediately fell on the Isis affiliate.
Last month, the group sent a suicide bomber into an education centre in the capital’s Shia-dominated neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, killing 24 students and injuring more than 100. It has declared war on Afghanistan’s minority Shia population and staged dozens of attacks since emerging in 2014.
Schools have been targeted for attacks in the past as well. Last year, a bomb outside Kabul University’s gates killed eight people. In 2016, gunmen attacked the American University in Kabul, killing 13.
Violence has been relentless in Afghanistan even as the Taliban and a government-appointed negotiation team discuss the peace agreement to end more than four decades of war in the country. Progress in the talks in Doha has been painfully slow and despite repeated demands for a reduction in violence, it has continued unabated.
A US deal with the Taliban in February set the stage for the peace talks. The agreement also allows for the withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan.
Also on Monday, a vehicle hit a roadside mine in the country’s southern Helmand province, killing at least seven people, most of them women and children, the provincial governor’s spokesman Omer Zwak said.