Gunmen attacked the American University of Afghanistan during classes Wednesday evening, setting off an explosion and trapping students and professors inside the building for several hours while dozens fled to safety, witnesses and officials said.
Gunfire echoed from the heavily fortified campus into Thursday morning as rapid-response police battled an unknown number of assailants.
At least one person was killed in the attack and 26 were injured, according to Wahidullah Majrooh, a spokesman for the Health Ministry. About 40 students had managed to escape the building after the attack began around 7 p.m., a police source said.
“We believe that two assailants have been inside; our forces are trying to find their exact location and engage,” said Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
“It’s not over yet. As soon as we see injured people, we’ve been helping them get out.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but as one of Afghanistan’s best known learning institutions and a symbol of American largesse, the university has long been in the crosshairs of the Taliban and other militant groups.
The English-language university was established with U.S. government funds after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Modeled on an American-style university with a liberal arts curriculum, it has grown into a coed campus of more than 1,000 students and a magnet for the war-torn country’s brightest young minds.
In brief phone calls, terrified students described the shock of the attack and their fear that they could be discovered by the gunmen who were believed to be moving through the campus.
One student who escaped told of hearing gunshots and an explosion.
“My class was over, and I was planning to leave. Then suddenly I heard gunshots,” Ahmad Mukhtar said.
“I tried to find shelter, but a blast took place and I ran toward a wall and managed to escape by climbing the wall and injured my leg.”
Another student inside the university told The Times by phone: “Many students and professors are stuck. Some managed to escape, but we are still here. Please help us.”
Wahidullah Hasani said his cousin, a student, was trapped inside the building.
“I called her half an hour ago — she asked me not to call her again because the assailants were close and may notice the phone light and her voice,” he said. “She hung up and said, ‘Forgive me if we don’t meet again.’”
Massoud Hossaini, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Associated Press, said he 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 told the AP.
The students barricaded themselves inside the classroom, pushing chairs and desks against the door and staying on the floor, before he and several students managed to flee the campus through a northern emergency route, he said.
“As we were running, I saw someone lying on the ground facedown,” Hossaini said. “They looked like they had been shot in the back.”
Hossaini and the students took refuge in a house near the campus.
The attack came two weeks after two university professors — an American and an Australian — were kidnapped from their car by unknown gunmen in Kabul. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
In 2014, two university staff members, Lexie Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen, were among 21 people killed in a Taliban attack on a Kabul restaurant.
Adam Stump, a Pentagon spokesman, said a “small number of advisors” from the U.S. military were assisting Afghan forces responding to the attack.
“These advisors are not in a combat role,” Stump said. “They are advising their Afghan counterparts.”
The Pentagon also identified the U.S. service member killed in combat in southern Afghanistan a day earlier as Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson of Irvine.
Thompson, 28, was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces group, according to an Army release. He was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb Tuesday in Helmand province, where U.S. troops have been deployed to help Afghan forces repel a Taliban offensive.
Faizy is a special correspondent. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan in Washington and Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report. The Associated Press was also used in compiling this report.
1:02 p.m.: Updated throughout with additional background information.
12:03 p.m.: Updated with Ministry of Public Health comment.
11:15 a.m.: Updated with Pentagon comment.
10:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with more detail about the number of wounded.
10:39 a.m.: This article has been updated with a comment from the Ministry of Interior spokesman.
9:40 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with new information about the attack.
9:19 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional information about the response to the attack.
This article was originally published at 8:30 a.m.