* Nine dead including four foreigners in New Year attack
* Hotel seen as haven by foreigners and Afghan officials
* Taliban seek to disrupt April 5 election with 'full force'
(Updates with latest on nationalities)
By Jessica Donati and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL, March 21 A Taliban assault on the
restaurant of a luxury hotel, considered one of the safest
places in Kabul and frequented by foreigners and Afghan
officials, has swelled a tide of violence sweeping Afghanistan
two weeks before a presidential election.
Taliban gunmen smuggled tiny pistols past the Serena hotel's
heavy security cordon and waited for the restaurant to fill up
for an Afghan New Year dinner before emerging to shoot diners
point-blank. Three children between two and five were found with
bullets in their heads. Four of the nine dead were foreigners.
Hours later, a bomb attack in the southerly Kandahar
province wounded the deputy governor and left his chief of staff
in critical condition.
The Islamist Taliban movement has ordered its fighters to
use "full force" to disrupt the vote and threatened to kill
anyone who participates in what it calls a Western-backed sham.
This week alone, seven or eight suicide bombers killed at
least 11 people in the eastern city of Jalalabad, while 18 were
killed by a bomb in a marketplace in northern Afghanistan.
The April 5 vote is intended to mark the first democratic
transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. It will be a pointer
to prospects for stability as the NATO-led force that has been
reinforcing security since the Taliban were driven from power in
2001 prepares to withdraw most of its troops this year.
With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from
seeking a third term, the front-runners include former finance
minister Ashraf Ghani and two ex-foreign ministers, Zalmay
Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah.
The hotel attack started around 6 p.m. on Thursday when four
attackers managed to get past the dozens of armed guards
patrolling the perimeter as well as metal detectors and body
searches, possibly concealing their guns in their socks.
Three hours later, they emerged to begin their rampage,
killing four foreigners. The Interior Ministry gave conflicting
accounts of their nationalities, but by late Friday said they
included citizens of Canada and Paraguay. The U.S. embassy said
a dual U.S.-Bangladeshi citizen was also killed.
The dead Afghans included popular journalist Sardar Ahmad of
Agence France-Presse, his wife and two daughters.
Afghan special forces fought the gunmen for hours as
terrified guests barricaded themselves in darkened rooms,
listening to gunfire and the sound of running. Around 100 guests
fled into a basement safe room, where they had to struggle with
choking smoke from a fire in the kitchen above.
Although six people were killed in an attack on the hotel in
2008, its heavy security made it one of the few places in Kabul
where foreign officials were still permitted to dine, after 21
people including three U.N. staff and a senior IMF official were
killed in a Lebanese restaurant in January.
As shots rang out and diners dived under tables, one witness
said Sardar had motioned for a foreign man, desperately seeking
a hiding place, to take cover under a table with him and his
As two gunmen walked towards the group, Sardar spoke to them
in a local language and the gunmen turned away and started
shooting in a different direction until they ran out of bullets.
As they reloaded, the foreigner ran into the kitchen, where
staff were guiding customers toward the safe room. But Sardar,
his wife and two daughters were killed. Their young son was shot
in the head, chest and leg, and was in critical condition.
All the Taliban gunmen were eventually shot dead, interior
ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said. The bodies were dragged
through the hotel lobby, leaving long smears of blood, a
Friday's attack in Kandahar killed at least one person and
wounded nine, leaving the governor's chief of staff fighting for
his life in a military hospital, officials said.
"The doctor says that he is alive, he's in a coma, but will
be okay," said Tawab Ghorzang, a spokesman for Afghanistan's
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Mirwais Harooni;
Editing by Maria Golovnina, Miral Fahmy and Mark Trevelyan)