By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 29, 2009
KABUL -- A squad of Taliban fighters disguised as police officers stormed a guesthouse in the Afghan capital just after dawn Wednesday, killing five foreign U.N. workers, including one American, and leaving three other people dead in a two-hour gun battle with Afghan security forces and U.N. guards.
Taliban spokesmen said the attack was the first in a wave of operations intended to disrupt a presidential runoff election scheduled for Nov. 7. The Islamist militia appeared to have targeted the guesthouse because about 20 U.N. election workers were staying there.
Afghan officials said that the attack would not affect the election and that up to 300,000 security forces would be deployed to protect the polls nationwide. But the brazen assault in a quiet, affluent section of this heavily patrolled capital raised questions about the government's ability to secure the hastily scheduled election.
Senior U.N. officials here vowed that the incident would not deter them from continuing their work in Afghanistan. But with all foreign U.N. workers here now confined to their lodgings and facing more threats of violence, it remained unclear whether the international mission would be able to follow through on its avowed commitment to observe, review and assist with the vote.
The runoff between incumbent Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah is being held because large-scale fraud was discovered in the original Aug. 20 election, which left neither of the two top candidates with enough votes to claim victory.
Afghans have been on edge for weeks as the electoral crisis has dragged on, leaving the country virtually without a government as Afghan and U.S.-led NATO forces battle Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents and as the Obama administration agonizes over whether to send tens of thousands more troops into the fray.
The guesthouse assault sent shock waves through the small international aid community here, which includes 1,200 to 1,500 foreign U.N. workers.
"This is an unprecedented incident for us," said Adrian Edwards, a senior U.N. spokesman here. "The U.N. has been in Afghanistan for over half a century, and I can think of no other incident of this severity. It is a very dark day."
At about 5:45 a.m., witnesses and officials said, three gunmen burst through the barricaded entrance of the Bakhtar guesthouse, killing some guards and pressing forward with gunfire, grenades and rocket attacks. Most of the guests began stumbling out of their rooms, some jumping out of windows or onto next-door rooftops to escape the weapon fire, the smoke and the flames that soon engulfed part of the building.
Mohammed Jan, who lives on the same block as the guesthouse, said the sound of gunfire shortly after dawn woke him up. "It was so heavy that I thought it was a coup against the government," he said.
Afghan police, army commandos and intelligence agents swarmed the street, and a gun battle ensued. One American guest, a trucking contractor from Kansas, said he grabbed an assault rifle and shielded a group of guests as they escaped.
By about 7:30, the three attackers had been killed and rescue workers had entered the compound. Officials said at least two members of the Afghan security forces and one Afghan civilian were killed during the fighting. Authorities were trying to confirm the identities of some of the dead, who included one American security guard and four other foreign U.N. workers. Officials said nine U.N. staffers were injured.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a telephone interview that three "brave holy warriors" had carried out the attack.
During the first round of voting, Taliban insurgents launched rockets at some polling stations and cut off the ink-stained fingers of some voters. Officials said security would be more effective this time. Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, told reporters that NATO and Afghan forces had been waging a successful campaign against insurgents in many rural areas, curbing their ability to undermine the runoff election. But the fight has been costly: October has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.
About an hour after Wednesday's attack, a rocket struck the grounds of the luxury Serena Hotel, near the presidential palace. Officials said no one at the hotel was injured, but terrified guests and staff members huddled in the basement for several hours.