Militant attack on Kabul hotel

January 14, 2008 9:34:55 AM PST
Militants with suicide vests, grenades and AK-47 rifles attacked Kabul's most popular luxury hotel Monday evening, killing at least two people in a coordinated assault rarely seen in the Afghan capital, witnesses and a Taliban spokesman said. It appeared to be the first direct attack on a hotel in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The 6:12 p.m. attack came on a night the Norwegian embassy was holding a meeting at the Serena Hotel. An American inside said she saw a body she believed to be dead and pools of blood in the lobby, and hotel employees reported two dead. She said three foreigners were wounded.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told The Associated Press that four militants with suicide vests attacked the hotel - one bomber who detonated his explosives and three militants who threw grenades and fired guns and then fled. The claim could not be verified but came very soon after the attack. The bomber was not included among the count of the dead.

Five ambulances and U.S. troops in Humvees rushed to the hotel. Police kept journalists and onlookers far from the building.

Stian L. Solum, a photographer from the Norwegian photo agency Scanpix, said a Norwegian journalist from the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet and a Norwegian diplomatic staff member were injured in the explosion. He said Norway's Foreign Minster Jonas Gahr Stoere, currently visiting Kabul, was not injured and was safe in the hotel basement.

"There were two or three bombs, and there was complete chaos," Solum said on the state radio network NRK. "When I started to walk out (of the elevator) a bomb went off, a little way from me. There were shot fired by what I think was an ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier. A Dagbladet journalist was shot and wounded and an American medical team was here and helped him." He said the injured did not appeal to be life-threatening.

The 177-room Serena is a newly built luxury hotel frequently used by foreign embassies for meetings, parties and dinners. The nicest hotel in the city, visiting Westerners often stay or eat dinner there. Located in downtown Kabul, it is near the presidential palace though separated by fences, blast walls and checkpoints. It is also near several government ministries and district police station.

On its Web site, the hotel claims it is an "oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city."

Aftenpostens journalist Tor Arne Andreassen told the paper's Internet edition that he heard a grenade explode.

"Out the window I could see shots being fired at the guardpost by the gate," Andreassen said. He said he saw a female hotel employee so badly wounded that he did not believe she could have survived.

"The plaster flew around our room and the whole building shook," Andreassen said.

An American who was exercising in the hotel's gym said she heard gunfire after the explosion, and saw a body she believed to be dead and pools of blood in the lobby area, and bullet marks in the gym area. She said three foreigners had been wounded. She asked not to be identified for her safety.

Vanessa Valentino, an American working in the Afghan capital, was at a meeting at the central bank around the corner when she heard a series of explosions and gunfire.

Valentino described an explosion faraway, then gunfire, another distant explosion followed by a large explosion very close - all within a couple of minutes.

"I think it shook the building," Valentino said. "We're just not leaving the building, and we can't figure out what's happened, so we decided to stay inside."

In 2003, a rocket exploded near the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, knocking some guests from their restaurant chairs and shattering windows across the lobby and in many bedrooms. No injuries were reported.