Kabul hotel attack: will it deter foreign observers of Afghan election?

The Taliban attack came as guests at Kabul’s highly fortified Serena Hotel, many of them foreigners, celebrated Nowruz, the new year. Nine people, including two children, were killed.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
A general view of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 21, 2014, a day after it was attacked by gunmen. The Taliban attack that killed nine people, including four foreigners, at a luxury hotel that is popular with tourists and foreign diplomats dramatically raises security concerns for international observers ahead of national elections next month.

The Taliban attack on an upscale hotel in Kabul Thursday night that is popular with tourists and foreign diplomats dramatically raises security concerns for international observers ahead of national elections scheduled for April 5.

The attack came as guests at Kabul’s highly fortified Serena Hotel gathered to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year, which is observed in Afghanistan. Nine people were killed, including a couple and their two daughters, ages 4 and 5, who were shot in the head.

It follows by just weeks a commando-style assault at a Kabul restaurant that killed 21 people, more than half of whom were foreigners. Both attacks, in establishments catering to expatriates, represent a “new trend,” Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told the Washington Post.

Many have expressed concern that the events will deter foreign observers from supporting next month's election, which would mark the first democratic transition of power as the nation elects a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

The Wall Street Journal reports that at least one observer mission withdrew from the country Friday morning, while other groups said they would be assessing their plans.

A UN spokesman told Reuters that the organization, which counted 18 employees at the hotel during Thursday’s attack, would stay on.  "This doesn't deter us from our commitment to assist the Afghan people and support them in the election," said Ari Gaitanis. 

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid took responsibility for the attack in an email published by the Washington Post, saying it had information that “occupying countries” would be at the hotel, as well as Afghan government officials and “corrupt” lawmakers celebrating the new year. In a phone call with Bloomberg Friday, Mr. Mujahid also said the Taliban targeted the Serena because it served alcohol to guests enjoying the holiday.

Four Taliban, estimated to be about 18 years old, carried out the attack, getting past security with pistols tucked in their socks at about 6 p.m. on Thursday. They hid inside the hotel until about 9:15 p.m., at the height of the dinner celebration, before opening fire on guests inside the restaurant. They were shot dead by police. Hotel guests crouched in darkened rooms and in the basement as the gunfight pursued.

"I never heard an explosion or anything. Only firearms and possible rocket-propelled grenades," one senior UN official said in a text message, according to Reuters. All UN staff members at the hotel were alive, a UN official told the wire service. The dead include a local reporter for Agence France-Presse, Sardar Ahmad, and his family. The foreign victims came from Canada, India, New Zealand, and Pakistan.

The attack came on the same day as the Taliban attacked a police compound in Jalalabad, as part of their promise to destabilize the country ahead the race, reports the Christian Science Monitor. 

The Taliban appear to be turning their attention increasingly toward foreigners. In January, the attack on a Lebanese restaurant represented the deadliest on non-Afghan citizens since 2001, reports Bloomberg. Those killed included the International Monetary Fund’s senior official in Afghanistan, three United Nations workers, and two foreign employees of the American University of Afghanistan. 

Last week, a Swedish journalist was shot dead on a street of central Kabul.

Kabul’s Serena Hotel, despite having been targeted previously, is considered one of the safest spots for foreigners in Afghanistan. It was booked solid, two weeks before the election, reports the Los Angeles Times.

This is the deadliest attack to have occurred on its premises. Mr. Seddiqi told a news conference that hotel security had been “a failure,” and that authorities would investigate whether the hotel’s guards were complicit in the incident.  “When you get to the hotel there are lots of security guards and lots of checks,” Seddiqi said. “They have the necessary equipment to find where those pistols were hidden.”

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