KABUL — The teenage gunmen moved from table to table firing pistols point blank at diners celebrating Persian new year, while other guests fled in terror. At the end of a night of carnage, 13 people were dead, including the four assailants and at least two children.
The Thursday night attack on the luxurious Serena hotel, one of the most heavily guarded private facilities in the city, stunned the capital’s foreign diplomats, aid workers, non-governmental organizations and well-heeled Afghans, who had made it a center of the city’s rapidly disappearing social scene.
Among the dead was a Paraguayan who had come to monitor the April 5 presidential election and a respected Afghan journalist working for the French news agency AFP, his wife and two of his children.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, raising fears of more violence ahead of the election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. The assault followed a recent suicide attack on a market in northern Afghanistan, the January bombing of a Lebanese restaurant favored by foreigners and the daylight assassination of a Swedish journalist on a street in one of Kabul’s most secure neighborhoods. Earlier Thursday, 10 Afghan policemen were killed in attacks in the eastery city of Jalalabad.
Afghan authorities said the assailants penetrated layers of security at the hotel including high walls, armed guards and metal detectors, full-body pat downs and bomb-sniffing dogs, smuggling the weapons in their socks or shoes, police said.
Within seconds, hotel guards shepherded guests into safe rooms where they sat for hours wondering what was happening beyond the doors, said one American who asked not to be named for security reasons.
The U.S. National Democratic Institute said in Washington that it was reviewing its presence in Afghanistan after one of its election monitors, former diplomat Luis Maria Duarte of Paraguay, was killed in the attack.
The spokesman for the Kabul police, Hashmat Stanakzai, said it took security forces three hours to kill the four gunmen. He said the dead included four foreigners, although nationalities were unclear. However, the Toronto Sun reported two Canadian development workers were killed.
Five people were wounded, including a member of parliament, and an unidentified foreigner, Stanakzai said.
The AFP news agency said its Afghan correspondent, Sardar Ahmad, his wife and three children had gone to the hotel for new year’s celebrations. A son and daughter died, and their infant son was undergoing treatment for serious wounds, AFP said.
“This is an immensely painful and enormous loss,” AFP chairman Emmanuel Hoog said in a statement released in Paris.
Surviving guests said when they left the safe rooms, they saw police removing the bodies from the bloodstained lobby.
How exactly the four gunmen, some as young as 18, entered the heavily guarded hotel Thursday night remains unclear. Investigators say they are looking to see if the attackers had inside help.
Like the Taliban-claimed attack on the Lebanese restaurant that killed 21 people, the attack on the Serena sent shock waves through Kabul’s large community of foreigners and wealthy Afghans, many of whom can afford to retreat into fortified compounds.
While foreigners in Baghdad were comparatively safe inside the “Green Zone,” Kabul has no such fortified area of the city. But the Serena is as close to a safe zone as there is for most of Kabul’s civilian NGO workers, journalists and affluent Afghans.
The hotel’s high walls and heavily guarded gates hide an oasis where waiters cater to guests lounging by an aquamarine swimming pool or holding meetings in courtyards shaded by trees. The hotel has been a bubble within what some call “Kabubble” that separates the relatively wealthy and calm capital city from the rest of war-torn Afghanistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the brazen attack on the Serena Hotel, saying it had been carefully planned to kill members of parliament.
He denied targeting civilians, insisting that those in the hotel were fair targets.
“We haven’t targeted civilians; the hotel was full of people and only those are targeted who were foreigners, government people or those who work for Westerners,” he told Stars and Stripes.