KABUL, Afghanistan -- The luxury hotel was considered one of the safest spots in the Afghan capital. Yet four gunmen walked in, proceeded to the restaurant and pulled out pistols hidden in their shoes. They killed nine people, including an AFP journalist, his wife and two children who were shot in the head.
The Taliban boasted that the bold assault Thursday night shows they can strike anywhere, and Afghan officials issued a string of conflicting statements as they scrambled to explain how the attackers penetrated the Serena Hotel’s tight security.
It was a major embarrassment to government security forces less than two weeks before national elections and came on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings against foreigners in the capital, something that had been relatively rare. A Swedish journalist was shot on the street earlier this month, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
The attack in the Serena was particularly brazen because it was considered one of the best-protected sites for civilians in Kabul. Sheltered behind a nondescript wall, entrants must pass through a security room at the gate where they are patted down and go through a metal detector as bags are put through an X-ray machine and sometimes searched.
The attackers hid their small pistols and ammunition in their shoes and socks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters, but he could not say how the weapons went undetected.
At the time of the attack, Cafi Zarnegar, one of the main restaurants, was packed with foreigners as well as Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The hotel is popular among foreign aid workers, journalists, contractors and diplomats who often come for brunch or dinner.
The dead included five Afghans, two Canadians, an American and a Paraguayan. Six people were wounded, including a child, a foreigner, two policemen, a hotel guard, and an Afghan lawmaker.
Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer who has worked in Afghanistan for many years, was taking a bath in her second-floor room when the shots started about 9:15 p.m. Unaware that the staff and many guests had taken refuge in a basement safe room, she got out of the tub, barricaded herself in a corner of the bedroom and tried to stay as quiet as possible while gunfire rattled downstairs for hours.
After the shooting stopped about midnight she went to the lobby, which was packed with security forces and other confused guests who were smoking as hotel staff handed out water and slices of cake.
"I saw them bring out four bodies. They weren’t covered," she said Friday in a telephone interview.
"There was a trail of blood from the restaurant to the front door," she said, apparently from corpses being dragged away. The restaurant itself was devastated. "It was blood and bullet holes," she added.
Officials have changed their story several times since the attack began to unfold. They later attributed the confusion to the chaos and the need to protect the hotel guests.
This much is now known:
Two of the gunmen went to the restaurant and killed seven victims by shooting them in the head. Two other victims were found in the halls, Sediqqi said, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and their shoes. Police killed all four attackers -- who appeared to be about 18 years old -- after a three-hour standoff.
Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, a widely respected 40-year-old Afghan journalist with the French news agency Agence France-Presse. His wife and two of their children also were killed, and the agency said their 1-year-old son was badly wounded and hospitalized. All were shot in the restaurant.
Ahmad also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 to become the agency’s senior reporter in Kabul. He covered all aspects of life, war and politics in his native Afghanistan, according to a statement by the news agency.
A U.S. official confirmed that an American citizen was killed in the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the death had not been made public.
One of the Canadians who died was identified as Roshan Thomas, who with her family had dedicated years to helping Afghan children. Canadian Sen. Mobina Jaffer said Thomas and her husband built a school in Afghanistan and played frequent host to young girls in need of a helping hand. Thomas died months before welcoming her first grandchild to the world, Jaffer said. She is survived by her husband and three adult children.
The second Canadian was Zeenab Kassam, a 37-year-old from Calgary who had spent the last year and a half volunteering as an English teacher at a school funded by the Aga Khan Foundation.
Luis Maria Duarte, 39, a former Paraguayan diplomat and Mideast scholar who was in Kabul to be an election observer, also died in the attack. Duarte was working for the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute.
His father, also named Luis Maria Duarte, said NDI’s director called him Thursday night to break the news. "He told me, ‘Sir, we have lost our best man.’ I felt very bad, so they had to send me to a hospital," he said Friday in an interview with Radio Cardinal in Paraguay.
"While events like this highlight the security challenges that remain in parts of Afghanistan, it only strengthens our resolve to combat the scourge of terrorism in all its forms," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement. Baird said both Canadians killed were development workers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council both condemned the attack. Members of the Security Council reiterated their serious concern at the threats posed by the Taliban and other militants and "underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice," according to a statement.
The latest assault is a new blow to government efforts to show security forces can fight the insurgents as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of this year. The Taliban have vowed to use violence to disrupt next month’s presidential election, which promises to result in the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement from power.
Claiming responsibility for Thursday’s attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it shows that "our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it."
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay, and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.