KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide attack on Friday at an educational center in Afghanistan’s capital killed at least 19 people, mostly young female students, adding to fears among many Afghans, particularly in the ethnic Hazara minority,about whether the new Taliban government can protect them from rising violence by extremist groups.
The blast wounded at least 27 people, Taliban officials said, and was the latest in a string of attacks in recent months on schools and education centers. Reports from medical staff treating the victims in nearby hospitals suggest that final casualty figures could be much higher.
The education center targeted on Friday was in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of the capital, Kabul, an area dominated by Hazaras, a group that under the previous Western-backed government suffered frequent attacks from both the Taliban insurgency and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
Since the Taliban seized power a year ago, ISIS-K has continued to carry out ruthless attacks on Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite Muslim minority, and has even expanded its violence to parts of the country where it had not previously been active.
The attack on Friday in Kabul deepened fears among Hazaras that their community remains in grave danger despite promises from the Taliban — a group consisting mostly of hard-line Sunni Muslims — to provide security to the country and to end decades of bloodshed against all Afghans.
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No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which appeared to be carried out by at least one suicide bomber who shot his way into the center before detonating explosives, according to eyewitnesses.
“The attack on civilian places shows weakness and hostility toward the people of our country,” Abdul Nafi Takoor, the Taliban spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a statement.
The assault on Friday unfolded around 7:30 a.m. at one branch of the Kaaj Educational Center, a private organization that offers tutoring. Around 600 students had gathered to take a mock nationwide university entrance exam, according to Abdul Karim Hisari, the center’s manager.
Hawa Haidari, 19, who had just finished the 12th grade when the Taliban seized power, said she was checking her watch to see how long she had to finish the math portion of the test when she heard gunfire.
She dove underneath the bench where she was sitting and then felt an explosion rock the building, she said. When she opened her eyes, she tried to understand the chaos around her: The roof had caved in. Some fellow students had lost arms and legs, she said. Others were crying and shouting. Limp bodies were scattered around the classroom.
“I was so scared, I was thinking, ‘How am I alive?’” she said.
In a new protocol instituted by the Taliban government, the classroom had been divided into separate sections for girls and boys. The blast targeted the girls’ section, according to Mr. Hisari and Ghulam Hazrat Ghaznawi, who was administering the exam at the center on Friday morning.
In interviews with The New York Times, staff members at five hospitals in Kabul reported a total of 31 killed and around 70 wounded in the attack. Most of the dead and wounded were girls, the medical staff said.
The attack came as girls’ education has become a contentious issue for the new government. In March, Taliban officials abruptly reversed their decision to allow girls’ high schools to reopen — drawing widespread condemnation from Western diplomats and human rights groups.
In the months since, some Taliban officials have publicly called for girls to return to high schools — bringing attention to a rift the leadership has sought to play down, between ideologues and pragmatics among the Taliban.
For some girls, the move to close schools and the recent string of attacks on education centers have emboldened them to continue their studies however they can — whether applying for visas to study abroad, forming informal study groups among their peers, or taking courses at education centers like Kaaj.
Arezu Hassani, 14, was about to begin ninth grade when the Taliban took over last year and girls’ schools were closed indefinitely. Desperate for any way to continue learning, she began taking mathematics and physics courses at a branch of the Kaaj education center.
She was not at the center on Friday morning, but the attack rattled her parents, who told her that they would no longer allow her to go to classes, fearing for her safety.
“I am so sad,” she said. “I cannot even explain my feelings.”
Still, others are determined to study no matter what.
“They want to prevent us from getting education, but they cannot,” said Ms. Haidari, the student who witnessed the blast.
“No one can stop us,” she added. “We are not going to give up.”
Yaqoob Akbary reported from Kabul, and Christina Goldbaum from Karachi, Pakistan. Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul, and Najim Rahim from San Francisco.