KABUL – Gunmen tried to storm the American University of Afghanistan here Wednesday evening after setting off a powerful explosion nearby, sending panicked students at evening classes scrambling for safety on the highly guarded campus in the Afghan capital.
Early Thursday, Kabul police reported that the gun battle had ended shortly before dawn, with all attackers killed. They said a total of 12 people had died in the campus assault, including seven students, and that 30 more people had been injured.
“Most of them were killed from the attackers firing,” police spokesman Basir Mujahid said shortly after 6 a.m. “I saw the bodies of female students. A couple of students died when they threw themselves from buildings.”
He said three police officers and one guard also died in the nine-hour battle at the Kabul campus, where some students were trapped all night. He did not say what the total number of attackers had been. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The explosion and gun battle occurred less than three weeks after two foreign professors at the elite university, one American and one Australian, were kidnapped at gunpoint just outside the campus. There has been no news of them since, and no group has asserted responsibility for their abduction.
As news of the explosion circulated quickly on social media, students tweeted that they were hearing gunfire very close by and feared that the assailants had entered the campus. There were conflicting reports on whether the gunmen had breached the compound, as well as unconfirmed reports of students being taken hostage.
One Afghan who spoke by phone with friends on campus said that the gunmen were holed up at a nearby eye hospital and that many students had taken shelter in a safe room on campus. Another report said wounded students were trapped inside.
Afghan police and special security forces converged on the campus, which is surrounded by high walls and is located in a remote area of Kabul. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said a special operations force was being sent inside to search for attackers. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles rushed to the scene.
A Defense Department official in Washington said a small contingent from the U.S. military advisory mission based in Kabul was “assisting” and “advising” Afghan forces as they responded to the chaos. U.S. forces in Afghanistan are not permitted to engage in combat.
One of the first alerts about the attack came from Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist from the Associated Press who was inside the campus at the time. At 7:23 p.m. local time, he tweeted, “Help we are stuck inside AUAF and shooting followed by explo this may be my last tweets.”
But the AP bureau chief in Kabul, Lynne O’Donnell, tweeted soon afterward that all her staff members were safe, and Hossaini deleted his tweets. Other Twitter users on and off campus sent a flurry of emotional messages after the explosion, which was loud enough to be heard across the capital. Many friends and relatives sought news or tried to console and reassure one another.
Rafi Fazil messaged his friends on campus: “Praying for your safety. Make sure you find somewhere safe to take cover.” Hikmatullah Noori tweeted that a friend there had been injured and was rushed to the hospital. “Please pray for his recovery,” Noori tweeted.
The campus was crowded Wednesday night because many students take evening classes and work during the day. All courses are taught in English. Many students who need help improving their English skills also take special courses in the evening. About 1,300 students attend undergraduate and graduate programs at the university.
The private nonprofit university, founded in 2006, was briefly shut down after the two professors were abducted Aug. 7, but it opened again for the final days of its fall semester. In a message at the time, Mark English, its American president, said, “AUAF is a lasting legacy of the U.S. in Afghanistan, and we will not be deterred.” In a separate statement, he said university officials “will remain vigilant to insure the safety and security of all personnel and students.”
After the kidnappings, numerous students interviewed said that they felt safe on the highly secure campus and were accustomed to living amid violence and conflict but that they worried that foreign instructors would be deterred from returning or taking new positions.
No group has asserted responsibility for the violence on Wednesday, but the two-pronged assault was typical of the complex attacks periodically carried out by Taliban insurgents against government and foreign facilities in Afghanistan. On Aug. 1, a powerful truck bomb was detonated outside a guesthouse for foreign nationals, followed by a firefight that killed a police officer.
The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.