KABUL — Nine people including four foreigners were killed execution-style in a landmark luxury hotel in Afghanistan's capital late Thursday, the latest high-profile attack by the Taliban who have vowed to disrupt upcoming elections.
The four gunmen, who opened fire during a special buffet dinner to celebrate the new year celebration, were killed in a shootout with Afghan security forces, Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi told reporters.
Among the dead were one Canadian, one New Zealander, one Pakistani and one Indian national. The AFP news agency said that one of its journalists along with his wife and two children were killed. Serena Hotel is one popular with Westerners and wealthy Afghans and is one of the few hotels and restaurants approved by the U.N. for use by its staff.
The attack comes as the city is already jittery over security — the Taliban have told Afghanis to stay away from the polls on election day, April 5. Despite having no foothold in the capital, the Taliban have repeatedly boasted of their reach.
"Our mujahedin managed to get into the Serena Hotel from the back door," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an e-mailed statement to news organizations. "This attack shows that our people, if they decide to attack any place they can do it."
Afghan officials said the attack was clearly well-planned and are investigating how the four gunmen managed to get past fortress-like security measures such as blast walls, metal detectors and body searches designed to win approval for use by the staff of the U.N. and other NGOs.
The hotel, which is downtown near the presidential palace, embassies and government offices, was last attacked by the Taliban in 2008. Six people died in that incident.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sidiq Siddiqi said the four gunmen hid for three hours in bathrooms at the Serena Hotel during a celebration of Nowruz, the Afghan and Persian new year marking the spring equinox.
He said the attackers, who appeared to be about 18-years-old, concealed pistols in their socks and slipped into the heavily guarded five-star hotel about 6 p.m. local time by claiming they were there for the special buffet. About 9:15 p.m., when the dining room would have been packed, the attackers emerged and fired at diners.
Commandos killed all four and secured the hotel two hours later, Siddiqi said.
The community is already on edge following a January attack at a popular restaurant with Westerners, La Taverna du Liban, that left 21 dead including 13 foreigners. There was also a brazen daytime execution-style shooting of a Swedish reporter earlier this month nearby in a wealthy district home to many foreigners.
The news of the attack began leaking out within the foreign community even before it was over. At the Baron compound near the airport, and with fortifications to rival military bases, Westerners from numerous NGOs were eating dinner and checking Twitter urgently to see what happened at the hotel.
One woman looked dazed, saying she was there for meetings earlier in the day and left only a few hours before the attack began.
It hit home for others. "It was a massacre — they killed my uncle and all those people for no reason," said one local man crying, who asked not to be identified.
The hotel attack came hours after six Taliban fighters attacked a police station in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 11 people and wounding at least 15 before dying in a four-hour battle.
The upcoming elections will mark the first democratic power transfer since the Taliban was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks in New York. While the country is on edge, locals say they are waiting for elections so the country can move on.
Saifurahman Fayiz, 23, who works for the government, says things have been on hold over the past year especially economically as no one is sure what will happen. But like many voters here, he says the new government must prioritize making the country safer.
"Elections will be very good for Afghanistan," he said. "A new government will come in and then things can get better."
Contributing: Doug Stanglin in McLean, Va., Michael Winter from San Francisco, Associated Press