Executed ... Sardar Ahmad, 40, a Kabul-based staff reporter at the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency poses for a photo at the AFP office in Kabul hours before he, his wife and two of his three children were gunned down by Taliban gunmen in Kabul's Serena Hotel.

Executed ... Sardar Ahmad, 40, a Kabul-based staff reporter at the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency poses for a photo at the AFP office in Kabul hours before he, his wife and two of his three children were gunned down by Taliban gunmen in Kabul's Serena Hotel. Photo: AFP

Kabul, Afghanistan: Handguns tucked into their socks, four gunmen slipped inside the luxurious Serena Hotel in Kabul on Thursday night and launched an attack that killed at least nine people, including four foreigners. Among the dead were an Afghan journalist and four members of his family who were celebrating the Persian New Year and a former Paraguayan diplomat who had come to Afghanistan to observe next month’s elections.

The Taliban quickly took credit for the attack, reinforcing fears that the election to replace President Hamid Karzai will be accompanied by widening bloodshed. A series of attacks have made it apparent that Afghan and foreign civilians are likely to bear the brunt of the violence, which in the past two weeks has ranged from a suicide bombing at a bazaar in northern Afghanistan to an assassination of a Swedish journalist on a crowded Kabul street.

With its high walls and heavy fortifications, the Serena was a magnet for foreign dignitaries and officials, along with well-heeled Afghans, who flocked to the hotel’s restaurants, coffee shop and full-service spa. The fallout from the attack was swift, with the National Democratic Institute deciding on Friday morning to pull its staff from Afghanistan. Its staff members were staying at the Serena.

An Afghan policeman patrols the entrance of the Serena Hotel in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan.

An Afghan policeman patrols the entrance of the Serena Hotel in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

The wounded also included a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament, Habib Gul Afghan, Mr Seddiqi said.

Mr Seddiqi told reporters that the attackers, who were all young men, entered the hotel saying they were going to eat in one of the complex’s restaurants. The men who searched them at the hotel’s guardroom, which is about 45 metres from the glass-encased lobby, failed to uncover the six small pistols that the assailants had hidden in their socks and shoes, he said.

The guns were smaller than the size of a hand and had been wrapped in some kind of plastic that masked them from the metal detectors in the guardroom, Mr Seddiqi said. He did not explain how the plastic would have shielded the guns from detection.

Hidden in socks ... Handguns used by the teenage attackers in the overnight Serena Hotel attack are displayed during a press conference.

Hidden in socks ... Handguns used by the teenage attackers in the overnight Serena Hotel attack are displayed during a press conference. Photo: AFP

Mr Seddiqi said the men entered some time before the attack began, and two workers at the hotel said they saw the men walking the marble floors of the public areas, asking about when the Nowruz celebrations would start.

From the workers’ accounts, it did not appear that the young men blended seamlessly into the Serena. The sprawling hotel is decorated to resemble a modernist version of a traditional Afghan palace, and its opulence differs starkly from the homes that even prosperous Afghans live in, never mind the mud hovels of the poor villagers form which the insurgent draw most of their fighters.

Once the Nowruz celebrations began, it appears the attackers acted with deadly certitude. They started their assault on the unarmed guests around 9pm and shot and killed seven people in the restaurant and two in the lobby, Mr Seddiqi said.

Afghan police surround the five star Serena Hotel in central Kabul in 2009.

Afghan police surround the five star Serena Hotel in central Kabul in 2009.

The police quickly cordoned off the area around the hotel, which is approximately a kilometre from the presidential palace. Confusion set in nearly as quickly with authorities struggling to figure out if an attack was underway or if armed guests had gotten into a fight, which is what some initial reports indicated.

Afghan security forces, including special commandos who have repeatedly handled similar situations in Kabul, overcame the attackers before midnight. Two of the attackers were killed in the restaurant and another two in a nearby restroom, Mr Seddiqi said

Throughout the attack, frightened guests holed up in their rooms or found shelter in safety bunkers around the complex. Some called friends and colleagues around Kabul, trying to find out what was happening or simply seeking the solace of familiar voices.

The hotel remained under a heavy security blanket on Friday as workers tried to clean up the lobby, which was bloodstained and littered with shattered glass by the fighting. Afghan civilians were being kept away from the hotel and foreign visitors had to be approved by the guests they were there to visit before entering the complex.

The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, was on the scene, questioning hotel security guards and workers.

The Serena has long been a popular destination for wealthy or prominent visitors to Kabul. Hotel rooms can cost upward of $330 a night, with prices soaring during times of high demand. Ahead of the presidential elections on April 5, rooms at the Serena were fully booked through the coming weeks.

Even before the attack, concerns about security in Kabul had prompted the United Nations to move some of its staff behind the hotel’s high walls, which are guarded around the clock by dozens of security guards armed with assault weapons.

The hotel has also been subjected to repeated attacks by the Taliban, who recently have threatened a surge of assaults to disrupt the elections. With its expatriate clientele and general ambience of luxury, including an outdoor swimming pool that is heated throughout Kabul’s frigid winters, the hotel offers an attractive target for militants.

Recent security reports rated the Serena among the highest-risk locales in the city. But it was also believed to be among the best guarded.

The New York Times