KABUL: Nine people were shot dead in the restaurant of a luxury Kabul hotel Thursday, when a gang of gunmen entered with concealed pistols and began an apparently indiscriminate killing spree.
The Serena Hotel was previously seen as one of the safest places in the Afghan capital, but the four gunmen were able to enter the building, make their way to the restaurant and open fire on the diners, killing a respected AFP journalist and his family with direct shots to the head.
The shooting spree was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks by the Taliban and allied militants, who have stepped up a campaign of violence in an effort to disrupt the April 5 national elections.
Claiming responsibility for the shooting, a Taliban spokesman calling himself Zabihullah Mujahid said it showed that “our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it.”
The plot was particularly bold in light of the hotel’s apparently high security. Sheltered behind a non-descript wall, guests must pass through a security room at the gate, where they are scanned by a metal detector and have their bags screened by an X-ray machine. The venue was popular among both foreign visitors and locals.
The attackers hid their small pistols and ammunition in their shoes and socks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said, but it was not clear how the weapons went undetected.
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.
Among the victims was Sardar Ahmad, a 40-year-old Afghan journalist with the French news agency Agence France-Presse. The agency said Ahmad’s wife and two children were also killed, and their youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Ahmad also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 as the agency’s senior reporter in Kabul. He covered all aspects of life, war and politics in his native Afghanistan, according to a statement tweeted by AFP.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he was deeply saddened by Ahmad’s death.
“The killing of Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two children was a big crime and is heartbreaking and sorrowful,” Karzai said in a statement.
AFP Chairman Emmanuel Hoog said the killing was “immensely painful and an enormous loss” for the agency.
The attack came on the heels of an increase in bombings and shootings targeting foreigners in the Afghan capital, something that had previously been relatively rare. Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January. Six people were wounded in the attack, including Ahmed’s son, two policemen, a hotel guard, and an Afghan lawmaker.
Next month’s presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. President Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Sediqqi said the hotel attackers arrived at 8:30 p.m. Two of the gunmen went to the restaurant, while two others gunmen killed several more people while making their way through the building, he said.
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, Sediqqi said at a news conference, displaying photos of attackers’ small pistols and ammunition, as well as the shoes in which they hid their weapons.
Sediqqi said four foreigners – from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India – were killed, but all of those countries except Canada denied any of their citizens were among the dead. Canadan officials said two Canadians were killed.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements about the attack. They initially said it began at 6 p.m. and left only two guards wounded. They later claimed the contradiction was due to the fact they had initially focused on protecting the other hotel guests.