A brazen, hours-long militant attack on the American University of Afghanistan ended early Thursday after at least 12 people were killed and dozens were wounded in the assault on the sprawling campus on Kabul's outskirts, a government spokesman said.
The attack underscored how despite efforts by the Afghan authorities to improve security, militants in this country are still able to stage large-scale attacks, including in the country's capital, Kabul.
The dead included seven students, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi. Three police officers and two security guards were also killed, the ministry said.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assault but suspicion is likely to fall on the Taliban. The group's spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, would only tell the media that the Taliban are "investigating."
"Most of the dead were killed by gunshots near the windows of their classrooms," Sediqqi said. The ministry statement said that 36 people were wounded, including nine police officers.
The assault began just before 7 p.m. Wednesday — a time when hundreds of students typically attend evening classes at the prestigious university — with a suicide car bombing at the university's entrance.
The blast breached the security walls and allowed two other "terrorists," beside the driver of the vehicle, to enter the campus, Sediqqi said.
They were armed with grenades and automatic weapons. The siege of the university lasted almost nine hours, before police killed the two assailants around 3.30 am, he added.
More than 200 people, mostly students who had been trapped in university buildings were rescued by special police units. Earlier, Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said one foreign teacher was among the wounded.
President Ashraf Ghani's office said he had visited some of the wounded in hospital on Thursday morning and had also extended condolences to the victims' families.
Ghani condemned the assault as an "attack on education institutions and public places" and said it would "strength our goal to eliminate the roots of terrorism."
The university, located on the western edge of Kabul, was established in 2006 to offer liberal arts courses modeled on the U.S. system, and has more than 1,000 students currently enrolled.
It was not immediately clear what plans the university has for enhanced security or when it would reopen, as faculty leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.
Dejan Panic, the program director at Kabul's Emergency Hospital, said 18 people wounded in the attack, including five women, had been admitted to the hospital. He said three were "seriously" wounded, probably from automatic gunfire.
AP photographer Massoud Hossaini was in a classroom with 15 students when he heard an explosion on the southern flank of the campus.
"I went to the window to see what was going on, and I saw a person in normal clothes outside. He shot at me and shattered the glass," Hossaini said, adding that he fell on the glass and cut his hands.
The students then barricaded themselves inside the classroom, pushing chairs and desks against the door, and staying on the floor. Hossaini said at least two grenades were thrown into the classroom, wounding several of his classmates.
Hossaini and about nine students later managed to escape from the campus through an emergency gate.
"As we were running, I saw someone lying on the ground face down, they looked like they had been shot in the back," he said.
Hossaini and the other students took refuge in a residential house near the campus, and were later safely evacuated by Afghan security forces.
The Pentagon said U.S. military advisers were on the ground with Afghan security forces at the university. Spokesman Adam Stump said the forces had been embedded with the Afghan units.
The attack came two weeks after two university staffers, an American and an Australian, were kidnapped from their car by unknown gunmen driving home from the campus after evening classes on a Sunday night. Their abductors were men dressed in Afghan military uniforms, officials had said.
The whereabouts of the American and the Australian, whose names have not been released, remain unknown.
The U.S. State Department condemned what it called "an attack on the future of Afghanistan."
The Taliban have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government for 15 years, and regard foreign civilians as legitimate targets.
Last month, Kabul was shaken by a massive suicide bombing that struck a peaceful rally by Afghanistan's minority ethnic Hazara community, killing more than 80 people and wounding hundreds.
That attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, which emerged last year in Afghanistan as an affiliate of the militant group fighting in Iraq and Syria. It was the IS Afghan branch's first assault in Kabul and the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban regime in 2001.