Militants Strike Central Kabul, Attack Hotels

Taliban militants attacked a luxury hotel and two guest houses favoured by foreigners in the center of Kabul early Friday, killing at least 18 people, including French, Italian, Afghan and many Indian nationals. At least 32 were injured.

In a telephone interview, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility and said five Taliban suicide bombers took part in the operation. Mujahid said the suicide bombers focused on two sites in the Shari Now district “where the foreign people are staying.” “The actual targets are foreign people,” he added in a telephone interview. (The New York Times)

The attack began with a car bombing that left a swimming pool-sized crater outside a small hotel, where most guests were Indian, said Abdul Ghafar Sayed Zada, head of criminal investigations for the city police. Three suicide bombers than entered another nearby guesthouse, the Park Residence, which is often used by Americans.

There, two bombers detonated their explosives while a third holed up as green-uniformed Afghan security forces descended and a firefight ensued for more than 90 minutes. Police said it was unclear which building was the initial target of the attacks near the hotel. One of the bombs, packed inside a car, blew out windows all along the street near the leafy Shahr-e-Now park in the center of the city. Militants managed to get inside the Park Residence Guesthouse near the hotel,l and an Indian-owned guesthouse.

The final bomber was killed by police about four hours after the attack began, authorities said. After the standoff ended, police carried out bodies swathed in floral blankets from the Park Residence, their boots crunching layers of shattered window glass that lay underfoot.

Several workers and residents were seen fleeing the Park Residence, and it remains unclear how many others were left inside. Afghan police and snipers were seen taking up positions around the guesthouse, and others were trying to scale a wall surrounding the building with ladders.

At least three police officers were killed, Zada said. Among the dead civilians were Italians and several Indians.

“I heard two big blasts in the beginning, and now you can hear some sporadic gunfire outside,” said Tanel Sepp, the charge d’affairs of Estonia, which maintains diplomatic offices inside the Safi Landmark. He said guests had been told nothing about what has transpired, and are remaining in their rooms. (Wall Street Journal)

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Health said that nine bodies and at least 25 injured people have been brought to local hospitals. Foreigners were among the dead and wounded, he said.

Though India doesn’t participate in the U.S.-led coalition, it’s seen as an enemy by the Taliban; the Indian embassy and other Indian interests in Afghanistan have been repeatedly targeted by the insurgents. In New Delhi, India’s Ministry of External Affairs, citing preliminary information from the Afghan authorities, said “up to nine Indians,” including government officials, had been killed. The ministry called the assault a “heinous terrorist attack” following two other attacks on Indians in Kabul in the past 20 months. “These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan and do not wish to see a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan,” the ministry said in a statement. (New York Times) Some of the Indian casualties worked at the Indira Gandhi Child Health Institute.

Italian authorities in Rome said Pietro Antonio Colazzo, a diplomatic adviser on temporary assignment at the Italian Embassy in Kabul, was killed by gunfire after the suicide attack on one of the guesthouses, the Park Residence. Italian news reports said he had been a member of Italy’s overseas intelligence service assigned to Kabul, but there was no official confirmation of that claim. Gen. Abdul Rahman, Kabul’s city police chief, told AFP news agency that the Italian man had been staying in the Park Residence and had been helping police by telephone when militants shot him dead. “He was a brave man,” Gen. Rahman said. “He gave us precious information that allowed police to evacuate safely four other Italians.” (BBC) The man worked at the Italian embassy and was a diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

In Paris, the authorities said a French documentary maker, Séverin Blanchet, 66, was also killed at the Park Residence.

Afghan security officials appear to have been on the alert for some kind of attack on Kabul during the past few days. Neighbours say that the Safi Landmark had seen heightened security, with police prohibiting cars from stopping near the building.

Friday’s attack further eroded the sense of security in the capital, challenging the government of President Hamid Karzai. The coordinated attack was the second large insurgent strike on central Kabul this year. In January, a handful of gunmen set off bombs and attacked buildings near the presidential palace in downtown Kabul, firing rockets at another hotel favored by westerners and diplomats. In October 2009, militants wearing suicide belts attacked a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul and killed eight people, including five of the organization’s workers. In December, a suicide car bomber struck the Heetal Hotel, killing eight people and wounding 48.

In a statement quoted by the Associated Press, President Karzai said he “strongly condemns” the violence on Friday. “Attacks on Indian citizens will not affect relations between India and Afghanistan,” he added. (The New York Times)

“I looked out at the gate, but there was no gate,” said Manuwar Shah, 20, who was standing at the reception desk of the hotel when the attack started. “It had been blown off.” Then, he said, he ran into a room before taking shelter in the hotel basement and was trapped there during the fight. (The New York Times)

“If we have security, why do we have this kind of drama?” asked Ahmad Haji Zada, 22, who came to survey the damage to his mangled building-parts store, about a block from the hotels. “How is it possible for them to get into the city?” (The Washington Post)

In the surrounding area, the bombs had laid waste to signs of peaceful pursuits in the long-embattled city. A micro-finance bank was partially crumbled. Layered wedding cakes were jumbled inside a glass case in a bakery, their vibrant flowers smashed and blurred.

As Zada spoke, a sporadic firefight was still in progress inside the Park Residence, and occasional booms shook the ground. Police helicopters hovered overhead, surveying what was, even at the height of the gun battles, a fairly calm scene. It was Friday morning, the beginning of the Afghan weekend, and the streets were mostly empty.

“The sound was a very, very terrible sound,” said an employee of a nearby cellphone company, pointing up at the empty window panes of his office. He said he and two Pakistani guests, who had spent the night at the office, were spared from injury from flying glass because they were sleeping under heavy blankets. (The Washington Post)

“I was inside my room when I heard a loud explosion and then I could not see if people were killed or wounded because I locked my door,” said an Indian who gave his name as Kashif, who was staying in the guesthouse. (Reuters)

Despite the Taliban claim of responsibility, the timing of the attack – when few passerby were present – sparked speculation among witnesses and authorities at the bomb site. One Afghan intelligence officer at the scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one of the bombers entered the first guesthouse after the car bomb exploded outside and shot two Indian guests. The intelligence officer blamed today’s attack on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which U.S. officials have accused of collaborating with Afghan militants in a 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. India is Pakistan’s archenemy, and Pakistan strongly opposes its rising influence in Afghanistan.

Many witnesses, however, simply seemed bewildered. Men in turbans rummaged through blackened wreckage, laying the boots and jackets of the dead security guards in a muddy pile. “I have spent all my 22 years in fighting and this kind of explosions,” said Zada, the shopkeeper. “It will be like this forever.” (The Washington Post)

After the first embassy bombing in July 2008, New Delhi said Pakistan’s military spy agency, the ISI, was behind most attacks on Indians in Afghanistan to undermine Indian influence. Pakistan fears being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, on a western boundary Kabul does not recognize.

On Thursday, India and Pakistan resumed high-level talks to reduce tensions, their first since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The meeting ended with only an agreement to keep talking. U.S. and other NATO-led foreign forces have pushed back against the Taliban after violence across Afghanistan last year hit its worst levels since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

Operation Moshtarak continues in Helmand in the south, aiming to drive the Taliban from their strongholds around Nad Ali and Marjah although troops continue to target militants in the area. On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, told the BBC there has been “a great deal of progress” in establishing security.

Friday’s attack also represents the first major Taliban response to the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi in Pakistan. He was said to be the second in command and to have run the Taliban’s leadership council and controlled their finances. At least four Taliban “shadow governors” of provinces in Afghanistan have also reportedly been arrested in Pakistan.

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