KABUL -- A suicide bomb attack struck a classroom of hundreds of students preparing for exams in the Afghan capital on Friday (September 30), with most of the casualties girls, police and a witness said.
Initial estimates suggest around two dozen individuals were killed.
No group has yet claimed responsibility, but the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has claimed previous attacks in the same neighbourhood, Dasht-e-Barchi -- including a deadly attack on a school in 2020.
The Friday morning blast ripped through Kaaj Higher Educational Centre, which coaches mainly men and women ahead of the university entrance test (Kankor).
"We were about 600 in the classroom. But most of the casualties are among the girls," said Akbar, a student who was wounded in the attack, from a nearby hospital.
Dasht-e-Barchi, in western Kabul, is a predominantly Shia area that is home to the Hazara community, the target of some of Afghanistan's deadliest attacks.
"Students were preparing for an exam when a suicide bomber struck at this educational centre," Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran said. "Unfortunately, 19 people have been martyred and 27 others wounded."
Scenes of chaos
A shopkeeper from the area said there was a loud explosion and then crowds of students rushed out of the centre.
"It was chaos as many students, boys and girls, tried to escape from the building. It was a horrific scene. Everyone was so scared," he said.
Videos posted online and photos published by local media showed bloodied victims being carried away from the scene.
"Attacking civilian targets proves the enemy's inhuman cruelty and lack of moral standards," Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said in an earlier post on Twitter.
In a post on Twitter, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) -- Afghanistan said it was "appalled by the horrific attack".
"Violence in or around education establishments is never acceptable," it said.
"Such places must be havens of peace where children can learn, be with friends, and feel safe as they build skills for their futures. Children and adolescents are not, and must never be, the target of violence."
Families rushed to area hospitals where ambulances arrived with victims, and lists of those confirmed dead and wounded were posted on the walls.
"We didn't find her here," said a distressed woman looking for her sister at one of the hospitals. "She was 19 years old."
"We are calling her, but she's not responding."
Local authorities forced families of victims to leave the site of at least one hospital, fearing a follow-up attack on the crowd.
By Friday afternoon the roof of the hall where students had gathered for a test had completely collapsed, its doors and windows blown out.
Prior attacks in the area
ISIS's Khorasan branch (ISIS-K) has repeatedly attacked Hazaras and other religious minorities at their mosques, schools and workplaces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a September 6 report.
Since August 2021, it said, ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for 13 attacks on Hazaras and has been linked to at least three more, killing and injuring at least 700 people.
Many attacks have devastated the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood, with several targeting women, children and schools.
Last year, at least 85 people -- mainly girl students -- were killed and about 300 wounded when three bombs exploded near their school in the area.
In October 2020, ISIS claimed a suicide attack on an educational centre in the same neighbourhood that killed 24, including students.
In May 2020, the group was blamed for a bloody gun attack on a maternity ward of a hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi that killed 25 people, including new mothers.
And in April this year, two deadly bombings at separate education centres in the area killed six people and wounded at least 20 others.