The four gunmen were swift as they entered the luxury hotel in Kabul, although it took them a few minutes to find the restaurant that was their target, Afghan officials said on Friday as they pieced together details of the brazen attack that killed nine people, including four foreigners and two children who were shot in the head.
The Afghan capital has been hit by several attacks, but authorities appeared stunned that the militants had managed to get through the tight security at the Serena hotel – considered one of the safest places to stay in Kabul.
The shooting spree was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks as the Taliban and allied militants step up a campaign of violence in the weeks leading to national elections on April 5.
The attack comes on the heels of an increase in bombings and the shooting of foreigners in Kabul, something that was relatively rare previously.
Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street execution-style and a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners in January.
Threat of violence
The attacks show that the Taliban are following through on their threat to use violence to disrupt next month's elections.
The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 US-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the hotel attack, saying it shows that "our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it".
The restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.
Interior ministry spokesperson Sediq Sediqqi said most of the civilians were killed when two of the attackers walked into the restaurant and began shooting, while the others were shot to death as the gunmen made their way through the hotel.
Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the cordoned off streets outside.
He said the four foreigners killed were from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India, but the New Zealand and Pakistani foreign ministries denied that any of their citizens were among the dead.
The ministry of foreign affairs and trade said a woman from New Zealand was in the Serena at the time of the attack, but was unharmed. Islamabad said no Pakistani nationals were killed.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements since the attack began to unfold on Thursday night, citing the need to focus on protecting the hotel guests and the chaos.
An Afghan journalist was killed along with his wife and two of their children, French news agency AFP confirmed. It said the family's youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Sardar Ahmad (40) 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 tweet by the agency.
The attackers reached the hotel at 8:30pm, evading security checks by hiding small pistols and ammunition in their socks and the soles of their shoes, Sediqqi said.
Afghan authorities initially said only two security guards had been wounded and the assault began at 6pm, but later changed their account.
The attackers appeared to be about 18 years old and were all killed, Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and the shoes in which they had hidden their weapons.
In addition to the hotel attack, an explosion struck a Nowruz ceremony in the southern province of Kandahar on Friday, killing three people .
Police spokesperson Zia Durani said militants threw a bottle packed with explosives that blew up when it hit the ground, which he referred to as a new tactic.
Those killed included the head of the provincial media centre and two police officers, Durani said. Seven people were wounded. – Sapa-AP