/ 15 January 2008

Taliban militants storm luxury hotel in Kabul

Taliban militants stormed Kabul’s leading luxury hotel on Monday night, killing seven people in a significant escalation of insurgent tactics against foreign civilians in Afghanistan.

The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, who was staying at the hotel, and other guests fled into the basement of the five-star Serena hotel as the attackers struck with grenades, guns and at least one suicide bomb.

The militants forced their way through a heavily fortified gate by lobbing grenades at guards and rushed towards the lobby. A few moments later a loud explosion boomed across the city.

Seven people, including two journalists — an American and a Norwegian — were killed in the attack, but most of the victims were security guards. A US State Department spokesperson would not name the American journalist until next of kin had been informed, but the Norwegian paper Dagbladet said in its online edition that its correspondent Carsten Thomassen (39) had been killed. ”We feel great sorrow and powerlessness,” the paper’s managing editor, Anne Aasheim said.

A Norwegian Foreign Ministry employee was among the injured and had been taken to hospital, the ministry said.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said Norway’s Foreign Minister, Stoere, was the target of the assault at the hotel, where the Norwegian embassy was holding a meeting. Stoere escaped unscathed.

A Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility shortly after the attack. He said the attack group comprised a suicide bomber and three gunmen who escaped afterwards.

The claim could not be verified. A Western security official said one of the militants was killed by security forces before he could enter the hotel.

It was the first attack on a Kabul hotel since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Until now suicide bombers have mostly targeted Western and Afghan military personnel, although many civilians have died in the blasts.

”We’ve never seen a suicide attack against an explicitly soft target in Kabul,” said a UN spokesperson, Adrian Edwards, whose office is nearby. ”If it turns out this was the Taliban, and if it turns out their target was civilians, it would be a very worrying development.”

US military Humvees and ambulances rushed towards the hotel, located at a major traffic junction near the presidency and several government ministries.

About 500 Norwegian soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Nato security and development mission.

A photographer, Stien Solum, was leaving a lift in the hotel when the shooting started. ”There were two or three bombs, and there was complete chaos,” he told Norwegian radio. ”When I started to walk out a boom went off, a little way from me. There were shots fired by what I think was an ANA [Afghan national army] soldier. A Dagbladet journalist was shot and an American medical team was here and helped him.”

Suzanne Griffin, a 62-year-old US employee of the aid agency Save the Children, was in the gym locker room. ”We heard gunfire, a lot of it. It was very close — close enough that plaster came off the ceiling,” she told the Associated Press.

Griffin stepped over the body of a gym employee as she was led to safety. ”There was blood on the floor all the way to the kitchen. There was a lot of blood in the lobby. There were empty shell casings outside,” she said.

The Serena is frequented by diplomats, journalists and dignitaries. When it opened in 2006, the hotel, part-owned by the Aga Khan Foundation, was hailed as a sign of progress after the fall of the Taliban. It calls itself ”an oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city”.

Since then insurgent violence has surged, with about 140 suicide attacks recorded in 2007. The US is sending an extra 3 000 troops to ward off an expected Taliban spring offensive.

Neighbouring Pakistan was also rocked by violence blamed on Islamist extremists. At least nine people died after a bomb apparently strapped to a motorcycle exploded among a group of fruit carts in the southern city of Karachi. Afterwards riots erupted in Pashtun dominated quarters of the city, with protesters firing guns in the air and burning tyres. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008