By Jason Straziuso
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
KABUL, Jan. 14 -- Assailants stormed Kabul's most popular luxury hotel Monday, 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.
Despite heavy security at the Serena Hotel, the gunmen threw grenades and fired AK-47 assault rifles, and one blew himself up. An 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 the aid agency Save the Children. She said she had to step over the lifeless body of a woman when evacuated from the locker room.
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 that the assailants had cased the hotel.
The 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, who was unhurt, as the target of the attack.
Witnesses said they first heard gunfire, then several explosions, probably from hand grenades, and 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 the journalist was counted among the six dead.
One of the assailants was shot dead, and a Taliban spokesman said another died in the suicide explosion. It was not clear what happened to the other attackers.
Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told the Associated Press that four militants with suicide vests attacked the hotel -- a fighter who detonated his explosives and three who threw grenades and fired guns. The assertion could not be verified but came very soon after the attack. The bomber was not included in the count of the dead.
In Washington, two State Department officials said that one U.S. 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.
The 177-room Serena is a new luxury hotel frequently used by foreign embassies for meetings, parties and dinners. Visiting Westerners often stay, eat and work out there. Located in downtown Kabul, it is near the presidential palace, although separated from it by fences, blast walls and checkpoints. It is also near several government ministries and a district police station.