A bomb blast has killed at least 19 teenagers at a college in a Shia neighbourhood of Kabul, the latest in a series of attacks that have highlighted the growing insecurity and persecution of Afghanistan’s minorities since the Taliban took power.
The apparent suicide attacker targeted a packed exam hall on Friday at the Kaaj Academy, where hundreds of students, including many women, were preparing for university entrance exams, according to local media and the BBC. The academy is located in a western Kabul neighbourhood with a large population from Afghanistan’s primarily Shia Hazara minority.
There were dozens more wounded and locals expect the number of casualties to rise.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sunni extremists such as Isis-K, the local branch of the Middle Eastern terror organisation, have consistently targeted Hazaras.
The Taliban, radical Sunnis who also long persecuted the Hazaras, vowed to protect the minority after retaking power in August last year. But the spate of attacks on the Shia community has underscored the danger Hazaras and other minorities face as the Taliban struggle to control rival groups such as Isis, with whom they have been engaged in a bloody war of attrition since taking power.
“This heinous act claimed the lives of dozens of adolescent girls and boys and severely injured many more,” Unicef said in a statement.
Educational establishments “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”, the UN agency added.
Isis attacks against Hazaras have killed or injured at least 700 people since the Taliban seized power, Human Rights Watch said this month, with mosques and schools among the frequent targets. Last month alone, Isis killed hundreds of people in a series of attacks during a Shia religious festival.
A Taliban spokesperson said the attack “proves the enemy’s inhuman cruelty and lack of moral standards”, according to the BBC.
While the Taliban have prevented teenage girls from returning to school since taking power — despite repeated vows to the contrary — women can attend universities.
But a Hazara political science professor who teaches at a university in Kabul said she feared that the growing sense of insecurity, marginalisation of women and dire economic outlook under the Taliban were threatening years of hard-won social progress.
“Before there was a huge wave of people entering universities,” she said. Now, “morale is low and men and women alike aren’t joining”.
While the Taliban have committed to quashing terrorist activity, international officials said those assurances were fatally undermined after the US last month killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been living in central Kabul with the apparent protection of elements of the Taliban.
Referring to the terrorist attacks, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a senior US adviser for special political affairs, told the UN Security Council this week that “these events, coupled with the recent revelation that the Taliban was sheltering the leader of al-Qaeda, underscore the importance of remaining clear-eyed in our dealings with the Taliban”.