Hong Kong office workers, schoolmates denounce police shooting of teen

By Clare Jim and Yiming Woo

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong office workers and high-school students turned out in their hundreds under a sweltering midday sun on Wednesday to denounce a policeman for shooting and wounding a teenager during the most violent clashes in nearly four months of unrest.

The office workers marched to Chater Garden in the Central business district as the students, some in the same class as the wounded 18-year-old, demonstrated outside his New Territories school.

More than 100 people were wounded during Tuesday’s turmoil, the Hospital Authority said, as anti-China demonstrators took to the streets across the Chinese-ruled territory, throwing petrol bombs and attacking police who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Five remained in a serious condition with 35 stable.

Thirty police were injured, with five in hospital.

During one clash, an officer shot an 18-year-old school student in the chest with a live round after coming under attack with a metal bar, video footage showed. The teen was in stable condition in hospital on Wednesday.

Protesters outside the wounded student’s school, the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, chanted “Free Hong Kong”, condemned the police and urged a thorough investigation.

“(It’s) ridiculous, it can’t happen, and it should not be happening in Hong Kong,” said one 17-year-old who goes to the same school.

“It really disappointed me and let me down about the policeman. I don’t know why they took this action to deal with a Form Five student. Why do you need to shoot? It’s a real gun.”

Protesters have previously been hit with anti-riot bean-bags rounds and rubber bullets and officers have fired live rounds in the air, but this was the first time a demonstrator had been shot with a live round.

Police said the officer involved was under serious threat and acted in self-defense in accordance with official guidelines.

Police said they arrested 269 people – 178 males and 91 females – aged 12 to 71 during the Tuesday turmoil, while officers fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds.

The protests, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, were aimed at propelling the activists’ fight for greater democracy onto the international stage and embarrassing the city’s political leaders in Beijing.

The former British colony has been rocked by months of protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, among other demands.

The outpouring of opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

The pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong condemned Tuesday’s violence and urged the government to impose emergency laws to resolve the crisis.

‘CHILLING DISREGARD’

Many shops and business closed on Tuesday in anticipation of the violence, which is taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade and the central government grapples with a U.S.-China trade war and a global slowdown.

Standard & Poor’s cut its Hong Kong economic growth forecast on Tuesday to 0.2 percent for this year, down from its forecast of 2.2 percent in July, blaming tension in the city for plunging retail sales and a sharp dip in tourism.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce condemned the violence.

“Extremists’ chilling disregard for the rule of law is not only affecting Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial and business center, but also crippling many small businesses and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens,” it said in a statement.

The protesters come from wide-ranging backgrounds. Of 96 charged after violence on Sunday, eight were under 18, some were students, others had jobs ranging from waiter, teacher and surveyor to sales manager, construction worker and a hotel employee.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

The protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said two of its branches came under attack on Tuesday.

“The bank expresses its deepest anger and strongly condemns this illegal, violent behavior,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Yimin Woo; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Bill Rigby, Donny Kwok, Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

Secondary school students hold placards as they join a human chain protesting against what they say is police brutality against protesters, after clashes at Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of uniformed school students, many wearing masks, formed human chains in districts across Hong Kong on Monday in support of anti-government protesters after another weekend of clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Metro stations reopened after some were closed on Sunday amid sometimes violent confrontations, although the mood in the Asian financial hub remained tense.

Early on Monday, before school started, rows of students and alumni joined hands chanting “Hong Kong people, add oil”, a phrase that has become a rallying cry for the protest movement.

“The school-based human chain is the strongest showcase of how this protest is deep-rooted in society, so deep-rooted that it enters through the school students,” said Alan Leong, an alumnus of Wah Yan College in the city’s Kowloon district.

Three months of protests over a now withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a broader backlash against the government and greater calls for democracy.

Police said they had arrested 157 people over the previous three days, including 125 males and 32 females aged 14 to 63, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 1,300.

The former British colony is facing its first recession in a decade as the protests scare off tourists and bite into retail sales in one of the world’s most popular shopping destinations.

Tourist arrivals plunged 40% in August year on year, said Paul Chan, the city’s finance secretary, with sustained clashes blocking roads and paralyzing parts of the city. Disruptions at the city’s international had also hit the tourism industry.

“The most worrying thing is that the road ahead is not easily going to turn any better,” Chan said in his blog on Sunday, noting that some hotels had seen room rates plunge up to 70%.

Activists started fires in the street and vandalized a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in the main business district of Central on Sunday after thousands rallied peacefully at the U.S. consulate, calling for help in bringing democracy to the special administrative region.

The students, brandishing posters with the protesters’ five demands for the government, called on authorities to respond to the promises of freedom, human rights and rule of law, promised when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. One of the five demands – to formally withdraw the extradition bill – was announced last week by embattled leader Carrie Lam, but protesters are angry about her failure to call an independent inquiry into accusations of police brutality against demonstrators.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged people to protest peacefully and called on authorities to respond to any acts of violence with restraint.

The protesters’ other demands include the retraction of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the release of all those arrested and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

A journalist wearing a hard hat and protective goggles at a police briefing condemned the use by police of pepper spray against media over the weekend.

‘CRUSHED’

In a rare public appearance, Lam walked around the central business district with the city’s Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan and MTR officials to inspect the damaged station, where she chatted with staff and commuters.

Dressed in a black suit, she examined electronic ticketing machines and boarded up windows smashed the previous day, according to footage by public broadcaster RTHK.

Following the demonstration at the U.S. consulate on Sunday, Hong Kong’s government warned foreign lawmakers not to interfere in the city’s internal affairs after thousands of protesters called on U.S. President Donald Trump to “liberate” the city.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling in the city and says Hong Kong is an internal affair. It has denounced the protests, accusing the United States and Britain of fomenting unrest, and warned of the damage to the economy.

Chinese state media on Monday said Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China and any form of secessionism “will be crushed”.

The China Daily newspaper said Sunday’s rally was proof foreign forces were behind the protests and warned demonstrators should “stop trying the patience of the central government”.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was released from police custody after breaching bail conditions following his arrest in August when he was charged along with a number of other prominent activists for inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was monitoring events.

“The freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong, and those freedoms must be vigorously protected. As the president has said, ‘They’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy’,” the official said.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu; Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Hong Kong, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)

Colorado police probe what sparked deadly shooting at suburban school

People wait outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 image obtained via social media. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (Reuters) – Colorado police on Wednesday tried to determine why two students walked into their school and allegedly opened fire with handguns, killing one person and wounding eight, miles from the site of one of the nation’s deadliest school massacres.

Douglas County sheriff Tony Spurlock told a morning news conference that one of the suspected shooters at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, previously identified as male, was a female under the age of 18. The other suspect was Devon Erickson, 18, he said.

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

He declined to identify the person slain in the attack, other than to say he was an 18-year-old male who had been due to graduate in the three days.

The reason for the attack remained unclear, Spurlock said.

Denver’s ABC television affiliate, citing an unidentified police source, reported on Tuesday that one of the suspects wanted to transition to male from female and had been bullied for it.

Spurlock declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether the younger suspect was transgender.

“Right now we are identifying the individual as a female, because that’s where we’re at,” he said. “We originally thought the juvenile was a male by appearance.”

Spurlock said the suspect had been identified as male “before the detectives were able to get the medical – and detectives were able to speak to her.”

Erickson was expected in Douglas County District Court in nearby Castle Rock at 1:30 p.m. MDT (1830 GMT). The second suspect also will appear in court on Wednesday, said District Attorney George Brauchler.

The two suspects opened fire in two separate classrooms and were arrested within minutes at the public charter school about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver, Spurlock said.

“A student’s life was taken too soon by this act of violence,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis said at a news conference. “I share the heartbreak, the frustration, the sickness.”

Some of the worst mass shootings in the United States have occurred in Colorado.

The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, about 5 miles (8 km) from the Highlands Ranch school.

In 2012 a man opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, another Denver suburb, killing 12 people and wounding scores more.

What happened inside the STEM school remains unclear.

Spurlock said there was a “struggle” as officers entered the building and some students said one victim was shot in the chest as he tried to tackle a shooter.

A man who identified himself as Fernando Montoya said his 17-year-old son, a junior at STEM, was shot three times when a shooter walked into his classroom and opened fire.

“He said a guy pulled a pistol out of a guitar case and started to shoot,” Montoya told the Denver TV station.

The bloodshed shocked the affluent suburb of Highlands Ranch. Parents and students had considered the school a safe place for its 1,850 pupils ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, killing two people and wounding four others.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bill Trott)

Students tied to U.S. college admissions scandal could face expulsion

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured on the grounds of University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The University of Southern California said it may expel students linked to the largest college-admissions cheating scandal in U.S. history after it completes a review of their records.

The school said on Monday night that it has already “placed holds on the accounts of students who may be associated with the alleged admissions scheme,” preventing them from registering for classes or acquiring transcripts.

“Following the review, we will take the proper action related to their status, up to revoking admission or expulsion,” the college said in a tweet on Monday night.

The move would affect the daughters of “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. The parents were among 50 people charged last week with participation in what federal prosecutors called a $25 million bribery and fraud scam.

The mastermind of the scheme last week pleaded guilty to racketeering charges for bribing coaches, cheating on standardized tests and fabricating athletic profiles to help children of wealthy families gain admission to top universities including Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.

A spokesman for Georgetown on Tuesday said the school would not comment on disciplinary action against individual students linked to the scandal but added that it is “reviewing the details of the indictment, examining our records, and will be taking appropriate action.”

Yale, UCLA, and the University of Texas said last week that any students found to have misrepresented any part of their applications may have their admission rescinded. Stanford said it is “working to better understand the circumstances around” one of its students linked to the scheme.

Wake Forest’s president said in a statement last week, “We have no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction.”

Prosecutors said some students involved in the scandal were not aware that their parents had made the alleged arrangements, although in other cases they knowingly took part. None of the children were charged.

Several celebrities and corporate executives charged in the scandal have already felt career consequences.

The Hallmark cable channel last week cut ties with Loughlin for her alleged role in the fraud.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Steve Orlofsky)

Spurned students sue U.S. colleges in admissions scandal

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – The U.S. college admissions scandal that erupted this week has spawned lawsuits accusing rich, well-connected parents and prestigious schools of conspiring to admit those parents’ children at the expense of the less affluent.

Lawsuits began emerging on Wednesday, a day after federal prosecutors said a California company made about $25 million from parents seeking spots for their children in top schools including Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Yale University.

Fifty people, including 33 parents, have been criminally charged in the nation’s largest known college admissions scandal. The accused mastermind, William Singer, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.

In one civil lawsuit, Stanford students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods said they were denied a fair opportunity to win admission to Yale and USC because of alleged racketeering, and said their degrees from Stanford will be devalued.

Singer and eight schools, including Stanford, were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

Another lawsuit by Joshua Toy and his mother said he was denied college admission despite a 4.2 grade point average, and seeks $500 billion of damages from 45 defendants for defrauding and inflicting emotional distress on everyone whose “rights to a fair chance” to enter college was stolen.

The defendants, in that case, include Singer and accused parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, and TPG private equity partner William McGlashan Jr.

“These class-action cases are opportunistic creatures of lawyers trying to obtain a windfall,” Donald Heller, a lawyer for Singer, said in a phone interview.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Both lawsuits were filed in California. More lawsuits are likely.

Prosecutors said Singer used his Edge College & Career Network and an affiliated nonprofit to help prospective students cheat on college admission tests and bribe coaches to inflate their athletic credentials.

The Stanford case is notable because that school is among the country’s most prestigious and selective, admitting just 4.3 percent of its applicants last year.

But Olsen and Woods said their degrees are “now not worth as much” because prospective employers might question whether they were admitted on merit, or had parents whose bribes got them in.

A Stanford spokesman said the university is reviewing the lawsuit.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)

Striking Los Angeles teachers set for mass rally as talks resume

FILE PHOTO: Los Angeles teachers carry signs as they picket in the rain in Los Angeles, California, U.S. January 16, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Whitcomb

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Los Angeles teachers union officials on Friday called for a mass rally to show support before their second round of contact talks to settle a week-long strike that has disrupted classes for some 500,000 students in the second largest U.S. school system.

At the request of Mayor Eric Garcetti, negotiators for the United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District returned to the bargaining table on Thursday for the first time since talks broke off a week ago.

Garcetti, who is mediating talks even though he has no direct authority over the school district, said on Twitter that the two sides had “productive” negotiations that went past midnight and were set to resume at 11 a.m. PST (1900 GMT).

Both sides agreed to a news blackout during the mediated talks. Negotiations, which had gone on for 21 months before some 30,000 teachers walked off the job on Monday, have been centered largely on union demands for smaller classes, more support staff and higher pay.

The labor strife in Los Angeles follows a wave of teacher strikes last year across the United States over salaries and school funding, including walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. While those strikes represented conflicts between teachers unions and Republican-controlled state governments, the Los Angeles strike pits educators against Democratic leaders.

At an early-morning rally at City Hall, union leaders urged members and supporters to turn out en masse for a larger assembly later Friday at nearby Grand Park.

“We are willing to go as long as it takes and work as hard as we need to, to get a fair contract,” union Secretary Arlene Inouye told supporters, adding that she expected the talks to last through the three-day holiday weekend.

School Superintendent Austin Beutner has said the demands, if fully met, would be too great a budget strain. Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl has insisted sufficient funding is available, given the right priorities.

The district said in a statement late Thursday the strike had already cost about $100 million and that “our students are missing out on the opportunity to learn.”

Although the strike has disrupted classes, support for teachers was running high among parents, several major possible Democratic presidential contenders and the public at large, as reflected in a recent survey of Los Angeles residents.

District officials have kept all 1,200 schools open on a limited basis with a skeleton staff, but attendance was running well below normal.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

China police detain students protesting crackdown on Marxist group

People cycle past a building in Peking University in Beijing, China, July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police detained a group of students on Friday who were protesting against a crackdown on a campus Marxist society, whose former head was held by police on the 125th birthday of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong. China has an awkward relationship with the legacy of Mao, who died in 1976 and is still officially venerated by the ruling Communist Party.

But far leftists in recent years have latched onto Mao’s message of equality, posing awkward questions at a time of unprecedented economic boom that has seen a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor.

In particular, students and recent graduates have teamed up with labor activists to support factory workers fighting for the right to set up their own union. Dozens of activists have been detained in a government crackdown that followed.

Qiu Zhanxuan, head of the Peking University Marxist Society, said he was approached on Wednesday morning at a subway station by plainclothes police who said they wanted him to answer questions about an event he was organizing to celebrate Mao’s birthday. Mao was born on Dec. 26, 1893.

When Qiu refused, the men took his phone, forced him into a car and drove him to a police station where he was questioned for 24 hours before being released with a warning, Qiu said, according to accounts provided by fellow students, who declined to be identified.

Late on Thursday, the university’s extracurricular activities guidance office released a notice saying police had penalized Qiu and he “did not have the qualifications” to continue as head of the society.

The teachers in charge of guiding the group had determined its members had deviated from promises made to teachers when the group was registered and so had “restructured” the group, the office said.

The “restructuring” was an attempt to “scatter” the group after weeks of continuous harassment by campus police and attempts to cast its members as being involved in a “conspiracy”, Qiu said, according to the accounts of his comments.

Qiu declined additional comment to Reuters.

‘PICKING QUARRELS’

None of the people on the new list of student leaders released by university authorities were previous members of the group, and many of them are members of the official Student Association that had been involved in harassing the group, Qiu said.

“We don’t recognize this,” he added, according to the accounts of his comments.

Later on Friday, a small group of students staged a protest against the action by the authorities, but were themselves detained by police, according to video footage sent to Reuters by one of the students.

The university referred Reuters to the statement issued by its extracurricular activities guidance office on why the Marxist group had been restructured.

The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.

Student unrest is highly sensitive, especially as next year marks 30 years since the bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

Qiu said his non-academic school adviser, a deputy secretary of the Social Sciences party committee, Shi Changyi, was with him while police questioned him and had advised him not to be “extreme” or “impulsive”, according to the accounts of his comments.

Reuters was unable to reach Shi for comment.

Police gave Qiu a subpoena saying he was suspected of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, which is a crime, but they declined to elaborate, he said, according to the accounts of his comments.

“This was, plain and simple, a plan to restrict my personal freedom and to use these inhuman and illegal means to stop me from going to commemorate Chairman Mao.”

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Crimea mourns after fatal college attack

People attend a ceremony in memory of victims of a recent attack on a local college in the city of Kerch, Crimea October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov

KERCH, Crimea (Reuters) – Grieving residents laid flowers and lit candles in the Crimean port city of Kerch on Thursday, a day after an armed teenager went on a shooting rampage at his college, killing 20, most of them fellow pupils.

The suspected attacker was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after an attack that saw dozens injured and a bomb set off in the college canteen in the Black Sea region, law enforcement officials said.

Stunned residents gathered on Thursday to mark a three-day official mourning period declared in the region. Orthodox priests sang prayers in the street, leading a memorial service near the college.

“Where were the guards?” a tearful woman at a memorial asked. “Where were the men who were there in large numbers? Why was it children who were shot dead at point blank?”

The death toll, including suspect 18-year-old Vladislav Roslyakov, rose to 21 on Thursday, Russian agencies cited the Russian Healthy Ministry as saying.

The Investigative Committee said it was still working to establish the motive for the attack that recalled similar shooting sprees carried out by students in U.S. schools.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, prompting international condemnation and Western sanctions, but since then there have been no major outbreaks of violence on the peninsula.

The Russia-backed government in Crimea published a list of the victims, most of whom were teenagers.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Typhoon Cimaron slices through western Japan, heads north

High waves triggered by Typhoon Cimaron crash against the coast of Aki, Kochi Prefecture, western Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo, August 23, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – A powerful typhoon sliced across western Japan on Friday, dumping heavy rain before heading out to sea and turning towards the northern island of Hokkaido after reports that three students were swept out to sea.

There were scattered reports of damage and significant transportation delays but the region appeared to have escaped the devastation and mass casualties it experienced in floods in early July.

The center of Typhoon Cimaron was estimated to be about 210 km (130 miles) northwest of Wajima city in Ishikawa prefecture at 9 a.m. (0000GMT) and heading north, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

Three college students were thought to have been swept away by high waves from a beach in Shizuoka, public broadcaster NHK said. The students’ sandals, backpacks, smartphones and wallets were found on the beach, it said.

Evacuation orders were issued in areas including Wakayama, Hyogo and Osaka prefectures and train and plane services were disrupted, NHK said. The directive was lifted in many areas but about 45,000 households had lost power in western Japan, it said.

(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Paul Tait)

Scores killed in Kabul blast as Afghanistan reels from attacks

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A suicide blast in a mainly Shi’ite area of Kabul killed at least 48 people on Wednesday, the latest in a wave of attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, soldiers and policemen over recent days.

The explosion, targeting an educational center in the west of the Afghan capital, tore through a large tent set up as a classroom in the courtyard, killing dozens of teenagers studying for a university entrance examination. The blast, which shattered weeks of relative calm in Kabul, also wounded at least 67, including both male and female students.

“Most of the boys at the educational center have been killed,” said Sayed Ali, who witnessed the blast. “It was horrific and many of the students were torn to pieces.”

Doctors at city hospitals, where people had gathered to try to find relatives who had been studying at the center, said many of the victims were severely burned.

Afghan men mourn after a blast in a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Afghan men mourn after a blast in a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

“My brother was studying at the center and he was killed. I’m here to get his body,” said Abdul Khaliq, waiting outside the Isteqlal hospital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Kabul blast but the attack bore the hallmark of Islamic State, which has conducted many previous attacks on Shi’ite targets. The Taliban issued a statement denying it was involved.

The explosion, which came as the central city of Ghazni struggles to recover from five days of intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces, underlined how badly security in Afghanistan has degenerated, some two months before parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Earlier on Wednesday, local officials said at least nine policemen and 35 soldiers were killed in an attack on their base in the northern province of Baghlan, the latest of a series that has killed dozens of members of the security forces nationwide.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan called for the fighting to stop, saying up to 150 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Ghazni, where the public hospital was overwhelmed and water and electricity supplies cut.

“The extreme human suffering caused by the fighting in Ghazni highlights the urgent need for the war in Afghanistan to end,” the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, said in a statement.

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Afghan policemen arrive at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

TALIBAN PULLBACK

The Taliban, who launched their Ghazni assault last Friday and battled Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes in the middle of the city for days, said their fighters had been pulled out to prevent further harm to the city’s population.

“They were facing severe shortages of food and drinking water as the power supply was also suspended two days ago,” a Taliban commander, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was providing dressing packages and oral and intravenous medicine to treat the wounded, along with electricity generators and fresh water for about 18,000 people.

The Ghazni attack, one of the Taliban’s most devastating in years, has clouded hopes for peace talks that had been prompted by an unprecedented ceasefire during the Eid celebration in June and a meeting last month between Taliban officials and a senior U.S. diplomat.

Two senior Taliban leaders told Reuters this week the group was considering announcing a ceasefire for the feast of Eid-al Adha, which begins next week, but the future of any peace process remained uncertain.

With parliamentary elections due on Oct. 20, authorities had been bracing for more attacks in Kabul and other cities, but even so, the scale of the violence has come as a shock to a government facing bitter criticism over its handling of the war.

In the southern province of Zabul, Taliban insurgents clashed with soldiers on Tuesday, forcing the government to send reinforcements from neighboring provinces to retain control of two checkposts.

The clashes killed 11 soldiers and one policeman, with three soldiers wounded, said Haji Atta Jan Haqbayan, a Zabul provincial council member.

Separately, six girls younger than 10 were killed when an unexploded mortar they picked up to play with suddenly exploded on Wednesday, officials in the eastern province of Laghman said.

(Additonal reporting by Jibran Ahmad, in PESHAWAR; Editing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones)