Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET
Gunmen disguised as policemen stormed Kabul University in the Afghan capital in an hours-long assault on Monday, killing at least 19 people and wounding 22 more, including students who jumped out of windows to flee the attackers. It is the second attack on a learning center in Kabul in recent days, and comes amid a spike in violence across the country.
The assault coincided with a book fair that attracted senior Afghan and Iranian officials to the sprawling campus, including Iranian Ambassador Bahador Aminian. It was not immediately clear whether any of the officials were killed or wounded.
But it seems students were targeted in the well-coordinated attack. A 22-year-old public administration student said she heard a deafening blast. Then, "I saw with my own eyes, there were a lot of attackers in police uniforms," said Nilofer Farahmand.
She says the assailants rushed to the law internship center, where she was in class. Someone yelled at students to flee, she said. Later, she learned on a WhatsApp group that gunmen had taken two classes hostage, and opened fire on the students and teachers.
Some students jumped out of their second-floor class windows to flee the gunmen, she said. Other students scaled over high university walls to flee the attackers, and at least two were admitted into a hospital, said Marco Puntin, of the medical aid group Emergency, which runs several faculties across Afghanistan.
Graphic photographs of the carnage were uploaded by Afghan reporters suggesting the extent of the horror within the university's classrooms. One showed young men curled into a corner, blood pooled around them amid upturned chairs.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Monday's attack, the second it has carried out in Kabul in less than 10 days, after a suicide bomber late last month blew himself up outside an education center, killing more than 20 people, including many students. ISIS also claimed responsibility for that attack – which was effectively a copy-cat of a 2018 attack by the extremist group on an education center that killed dozens of teenagers who were studying for university entrance exams.
The ISIS claim says two of its fighters attacked a group of graduating judges and investigators with their weapons and gunfire. They claim they hit 80 people who had rejected Islam.
Meanwhile, the Taliban denied responsibility, and suggested that Afghan officials were behind the violence. The accusation reflected the sour mood between the insurgents and the Afghan government: They have been engaged in peace talks since mid-September in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Since the negotiations began, violence has surged across Afghanistan, with civilians often paying the price. To the south, Taliban fighters have been trying to isolate the city of Lashkargah, the capital of the southern Helmand province, causing thousands of families to flee, and overwhelming hospitals with casualties. In the far north of the country, there has been fierce fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, prompting airstrikes that appeared to hit a mosque in late October. Residents said the strike killed a dozen children who were taking religious classes.
One of the few women on the Afghan government negotiating team, Fawzia Koofi, said the violence was causing "a lot of disappointments and frustration," but she said peace talks would continue.
That's in part because Afghan government officials have little choice, despite the "incredibly intense levels of violence," said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for the Crisis Group.
"What everyone knows is that if you walk away from the table, the Taliban aren't going to be waiting eagerly for you to come back," he said. So "there is this terrible dynamic that everyone except the Taliban has to be particularly cautious about what they do," he said.
Watkins was referring the the Taliban's leverage that has come from a parallel agreement that the insurgents made with the United States, that will see most foreign forces withdraw by April. American and NATO forces have been drawing down despite the violence, and many Afghans are concerned that the Taliban could try to seize power if negotiators do not hammer out an agreement in Doha.
Yet the attack on Kabul University was a body-blow to the morale of Afghans who had hoped peace talks might offer respite from violence – not a step up in carnage, said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"It's harder and harder [for the Afghan people] to have hope about the process," says Akbar, "when their children are being slaughtered on a daily basis inside schools, inside universities."