NINE people, including four members of the same family, were shot dead when four teenage Taleban assassins attacked a luxury hotel once considered the safest place in the Afghan capital.
The attackers were later killed in a gunbattle with police.
They appear to have simply walked into the Serena Hotel, entered the restaurant, pulled out hidden handguns and started shooting people dining at tables there.
Among the victims was Agence France-Presse journalist Sardar Ahmad, 40, whose wife and two of their three children were also killed. Each was shot in the head, according to reports.
The Afghan journalist’s youngest son, the surviving member of the family, was undergoing emergency treatment last night after being badly wounded.
Two Canadians were also killed in the attack.
The incident on Thursday evening was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks by the Taleban and allied militants as they step up a campaign to disrupt the 5 April national elections.
Claiming responsibility, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it shows “our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it.”
The attack was particularly bold because the Serena Hotel was seen as one of the best-protected sites for civilians in Kabul. Sheltered behind a wall, visitors must pass through a security room at the gate where they go through a metal detector and bags are put through an X-ray machine.
The attackers hid their handguns – thought to be compact or micro pistols (typically handguns with barrels less than three inches in length) – and ammunition in their shoes and socks, interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said. It was not clear how the weapons were not detected. At the time of the attack, the hotel restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.
The attack follows a renewed campaign of bombings and shootings against foreigners in Kabul.
Earlier this month, a British-Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, 52, was shot down in the street. A little-known Jihadist group later claimed he was an MI6 agent. A Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was also attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
Six people were wounded in the Serena attack, including Mr Ahmad’s son, a foreigner, two policemen, a hotel guard, and a member of the Afghan parliament.
The Taleban has threatened to use violence to disrupt next month’s elections. The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 United States-led invasion that ousted the Islamist militants. President Hamid Karzai is barred from a third term.
Interior ministry spokesman Mr Sediqqi said the attackers reached the hotel at 8:30pm. Two of the gunmen went to the restaurant, killing most of victims, while the other gunmen killed several others while making their way through the hotel.
Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the cordoned off streets outside.
The attackers appeared to be about 18-years-old, Mr Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the micro pistols and ammunition they used and shoes in which they hid their weapons.
Mr Sediqqi said four foreigners were killed – from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements since Thursday night’s attack.
They initially said the attack began at 6pm and left only two guards wounded. They later claimed they had only been focused on protecting people caught up in the violence.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, an explosion struck a Nowruz ceremony yesterday, killing two policemen in the southern province of Kandahar, police said.
Militants threw an explosives-packed bottle that blew up when it hit the ground, which police said was a new tactic.
A spokesman said three people were killed but later lowered the death toll to two and said the head of the provincial media centre was seriously wounded.