Taliban gunmen killed nine people, including four foreigners, in an attack on a luxury hotel used by United Nations’ staff in Kabul on Thursday, before being shot dead in a shootout with Afghan security forces, police and government officials said.
The assault on the heavily fortified Serena Hotel was the latest in a string of bold attacks by the insurgents seeking to spoil an presidential election on April 5, which would mark the first time in Afghanistan’s history that one elected government hands power to another.
Four Taliban fighters snuck into the hotel early on Thursday evening and hid for three hours before storming into the restaurant and opening fire on people inside, according to interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi.
They then battled Afghan special forces for more than an hour inside the hotel before being overwhelmed, as terrified guests hid in rooms or fled to bunkers inside.
“I never heard an explosion or anything like that. Only firearms and possible rocket-propelled grenades,” one senior UN official said in a text message from his room as hid with the lights turned off.
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The foreign nationals killed were from Canada, India, New Zealand and Pakistan, the interior ministry said. The victims included four women, three men and two children.
All United Nations staff were accounted for, a UN agency official told Reuters on condition of anonymity as they were unauthorised to speak to the media.
At the time of the attack, some 18 U.N staff were inside the hotel, where many of them stay, and is frequented by prominent Afghan politicians and visiting foreign officials.
Police are investigating how the gunmen got into te Serena. The hotel has dozens of armed guards patrolling its perimeter, and anyone entering is checked with metal detectors and body searched for weapons.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack and said the gunmen had targeted both Afghan foreign guests celebrating the eve of the Afghan new year on Friday.
“Suicide bombers have entered the Serena Hotel, heavy battle is underway, enemies suffered heavy casualties,” the Taliban spokesman said in a text message.
The Serena hotel has been attacked several times during the Taliban insurgency, but Thursday’s assault was the most deadly.
In 2008, gunmen disguised as police stormed the hotel and opened fire on guests inside its gym, killing six.
Despite its history of being targeted, the Serena’s restaurant was one of the few places in Kabul where foreign officials were still permitted to dine, following a Taliban attack in January on a Lebanese restaurant that killed 21 people, including three UN staff and the International Monetary Fund’s top representative in Afghanistan.
Earlier on Thursday, the Taliban attacked a police station in the southern city of Jalalabad with suicide bombers and gunmen. The assailants killed at least 11 people.
The day before, on Wednesday, a marketplace bomb killed at least 15 people in northern Faryab province.