Student Midwives Flee to Safe Room as Extremists Attack Afghan School

Afghan security officials secured a road leading to the midwifery school under attack in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar Province, on Saturday.CreditGhulamullah Habibi/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Zabihullah Ghazi and Rod Nordland

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Extremists attacked a school for midwives in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday morning, forcing its young female students to flee or take refuge in a fortified safe room on its grounds, according to Afghan authorities and witnesses at the scene.

The attack began about 11 a.m. at the Midwifery Training Center in Jalalabad, as assailants believed to include suicide bombers as well as men armed with automatic weapons laid siege to the school. Five explosions were heard at the site, which is in the center of the city in Nangarhar Province.

Gunfire could be heard after the initial attack, and police special forces units arrived on the scene. Fighting was continuing four hours after the attack began. A spokesman for the Health Ministry, Inamullah Miakhel, said three people had been wounded in the battle, all men.

The school had 67 to 70 students in a two-year midwifery program, most of them 18 to 19 years old. They lived in a dormitory in the center’s compound. Mr. Miakhel said 12 of the students were trapped inside.

A police spokesmen initially said that all the young women had been evacuated successfully. Witnesses and officers at the scene, however, said that many had been unable to escape but were believed to have reached a safe room.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the attack bore hallmarks of the Islamic State, whose local affiliate is especially active in Nangarhar and responsible for many suicide attacks there.

The Taliban have recently disavowed attacks on civilian targets and have long refrained from targeting medical facilities or women’s institutions. The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied the group was behind the attack in a WhatsApp message.

The midwife center is run by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, and trains midwives for remote districts, where doctors are rare and most women will not go to male doctors.

It’s close to another midwifery school in Jalalabad that is run by the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee. That organization’s country director, Terje M. Watterdal, said the young women there were all safe but were in a safe room.

“Everyone is in lockdown now,” Mr. Watterdal said. “But everyone is safe. It’s just difficult to know how it will develop.”

Follow Rod Nordland on Twitter: @rodnordland.

Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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