Afghan hotel raid targeted Western civilians

KABUL – A commando-style suicide raid on Afghanistan’s top hotel, frequented by foreigners and diplomats, shows a new style of Taliban attack aimed at soft civilian targets, diplomats and analysts said on Tuesday.

At least seven people, including a number of foreigners, were killed when attackers set off two suicide bombs at Kabul’s five-star Serena Hotel and opened fire on guests. The hardline Islamist Taliban said they carried out the attack.

“Last night’s attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul is a matter of very great concern to us, representing as it does a deliberate targeting of foreign guests and Afghan civilians working together in support of Afghanistan,” the U.N. acting special representative to Afghanistan, Bo Asplund, said in a statement.

One attacker shot dead a guard at the gate of the hotel to gain entrance to the compound. He was then shot by a second guard and blew up his explosive belt just inside the hotel grounds.

A second attacker then blew himself up at the entrance to the hotel building. “It is unclear whether he was shot dead by the guards or he panicked,” Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh told a news conference.

The third man entered the hotel and opened fire on guests in the lobby and the hotel gym, killing three American men, a French woman and a Norwegian journalist, before being arrested, Saleh said. The U.S. embassy in Kabul said it had confirmed the death of only one American.

A Filipina spa supervisor died of her wounds on Tuesday.

A fourth man, named Humayoun, who drove the attackers to the hotel but escaped the scene, was arrested on the road east from Kabul towards the city of Jalalabad and the Pakistan border.

Saleh said Humayoun had confessed the attack was organized by a man called Abdullah based in the city of Miranshah in Pakistan’s tribal border region and that he worked for the Haqqani network, which is allied to the Taliban.

Two other men who had accommodated the attackers in Kabul were also arrested, Saleh said.

FOREIGN CIVILIANS TARGETED

Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere and Australian embassy staff were in the hotel at the time, but were unhurt. Stoere was cutting short his visit and leaving Kabul on Tuesday instead of Thursday, Norwegian broadcaster NRK said.

“It has a big impact on perceptions of what it’s like to be a Westerner in Kabul. But I think what is much more problematic is the style of attack, because it did seem to be pretty professional, certainly well-planned,” said a senior Western diplomat. “The Taliban are usually amateur compared to this.”

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said the attack would not deter Norway from its work in Afghanistan, where the country has about 500 soldiers as part of a NATO-led force.

“What stands out about this attack is that it was 100 percent concentrated on foreign civilian targets … in that sense it is unique,” said a Western security analyst.

Western aid workers would be reviewing security precautions, but would have to wait and see if this was part of a new pattern of attacks or a “one-off” incident.

Taliban rebels, fighting to overthrow the pro-Western Afghan government and eject 50,000 foreign troops, have increasingly turned to suicide bombs with more than 140 such attacks in 2007, killing more than 200 civilians.

But the proportion of Western troops killed by suicide bombs has gone down as NATO soldiers have deployed better armed vehicles and improved their defenses, security analysts say.

Attacking Western civilians also has greater propaganda value for the Taliban.

“If it was aimed at taking them to the top of the news bulletins then it was very successful, you are just not going to achieve that these days by attacking an American military convoy,” the Western diplomat said.

Afghans were also worried that the attack on the Serena Hotel, surrounded by high walls in the centre of Kabul, next to the presidential palace, indicated a deterioration in security.

“The international community is in Afghanistan to build security for the people, but now we can see they are not even able to ensure their own safety,” said Mohammad Shaker, another resident of the city.

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