KABUL, Afghanistan – Militants stormed Kabul’s most popular luxury hotel yesterday, killing at least six people as they hunted down Westerners who cowered in a gym – a coordinated assault that could signal a new era of brazen Taliban attacks.
The gunmen threw grenades and fired AK-47s, and one even blew himself up despite heavy security at the Serena Hotel. One American and a journalist from Norway were among the dead, officials said.
More than 30 U.S. soldiers in a half-dozen Humvees rushed to the hotel as part of a quick reaction force, and security personnel from the nearby U.S. Embassy ran through the building looking for U.S. citizens.
“There was blood on the floor all the way to the kitchen. There was a lot of blood in the lobby,” said Suzanne Griffin of Seattle, who had been in the hotel gym at the time of the attack.
“There were empty shell casings outside,” added Griffin, 62, who was working for Save the Children.
She said she had to step over the lifeless body of a woman when evacuated from the locker room.
“Thank God I didn’t get into the shower because then we heard gunfire, a lot of it. It was very close, close enough that plaster came off the ceiling,” Griffin, her voice shaking, told The Associated Press shortly after the attack. “We all just sat on the floor and got as far as we could from any glass. … We turned our phones on silent.”
It was the deadliest direct attack on a hotel in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The assailants appeared to concentrate their assault on the Serena’s gym and spa, where foreigners relax and work out at night, suggesting the militants had cased the hotel in advance. The Taliban has targeted aid workers and civilian contractors with kidnappings and killings, but this was the most daring and sophisticated attack yet and was aimed at a prominent symbol of foreign presence in the country, apparently designed to point out the vulnerability of the Western presence.
Taliban have typically focused their attacks on Western and Afghan government or security personnel, not Western civilians.
The multipronged assault began around 6 p.m., when the Norwegian Embassy was hosting a meeting at the Serena for visiting Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described Stoere as the target of the attack.
Witnesses said they first heard gunfire, then several explosions – likely from hand grenades – and also one large blast – the suicide bomb.
The attack killed six people and wounded six, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. He spoke before news of the Norwegian journalist’s death and it was not clear whether he was counted among the six dead.
One of the militants was shot to death and a Taliban spokesman said a second died in the suicide explosion. It was not clear what happened to the other attackers.
Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told AP that four militants with suicide vests attacked the hotel – one bomber who detonated his explosives and three militants who threw grenades and fired guns. The claim could not be verified but came very soon after the attack. The bomber was not included among the count of the dead.
In Washington, two State Department officials said that one American citizen had been killed. The victim’s identity was being withheld pending notification of relatives, the official said on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the attack was carried out by extremists killing innocent people to pursue their political objectives.
“It underscores the reason we have to stay on the offense against the extremists in places like Kabul but also in other places around the world,” she said. “We’re in for a long, hard fight. These are deliberate, patient people who will murder innocents including our own people.”