by Matthew Rosenberg & Azam Ahmed
New York Times
March 21, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”
Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.
With its high walls and heavy fortifications, the Serena was a magnet for foreign dignitaries and officials, along with well-heeled Afghans, who flocked to its restaurants, coffee shop and full-service spa. Many international organizations also put up visiting staff members there, confident in the metal detectors and multiple checkpoints manned by guards armed with assault rifles that were erected after a 2008 attack on the hotel left six dead.
Thursday’s attack shattered the illusions of the Serena as one of the few remaining safe havens for the rich or foreign in Kabul, and the fallout was swift.
The National Democratic Institute decided on Friday morning to pull out staff members who were staying at the hotel after one of them, Luis María Duarte, a former Paraguayan diplomat, was killed. Mr. Duarte and the other staff members were in Afghanistan to observe next month’s presidential election, and the organization was reassessing its election monitoring activities.
The other dead in Thursday’s attack included the mother and two of her children, along with their father, Sardar Ahmad, a prominent Afghan journalist. A Canadian, two Bangladeshi nationals and another Afghan woman were also killed.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, reinforcing fears that the election to replace President Hamid Karzai will be accompanied by widening bloodshed. A series of attacks have made it apparent that Afghan and foreign civilians are likely to bear the brunt of the violence, which in the past two weeks has included a suicide bombing at a bazar in northern Afghanistan and an assassination of a Swedish journalist on a crowded Kabul street.
The spate of attacks has left a number of election observer missions and international organizations weighing whether they could stay on in a city that has become increasingly perilous for Westerners in recent months.
It appeared certain that security concerns would now shrink the already limited international role in the election, scheduled for April 5, further diminishing the chances to document fraud and avert any potential crises in the aftermath of an election that is widely seen as crucial to Afghanistan’s stability as American-led combat forces withdraw from the country.
But the focus on Friday for Afghans and foreigners alike was on mourning the dead and figuring out how the gunmen managed to get inside the Serena.
Mr. Ahmad, 40, a reporter for Agence France-Presse, was shot along with his wife and two of his three children, ages 4 and 5, as they celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at a dinner accompanied by live music.
The couple’s third child, a toddler, was seriously wounded by gunshots to the head and an arm, and was in a coma at a nearby hospital.
Bronwen Roberts, an Agence France-Presse journalist who worked with Mr. Ahmad in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009, said he was a stalwart of the agency’s coverage here who enjoyed fishing and reading Afghan poetry and was proud of his young and growing family.
“He was heartbroken about what was happening in his country, but he didn’t want to leave because it meant so much to him,” she said by phone from Paris. “He was a romantic soul, a sweet, sweet man.”
Dozens of Afghan reporters, distraught over the death of Mr. Ahmad, pledged to embark on a 15-day boycott of all news related to the Taliban, though it was unclear how it would work in a country where insurgency looms over many aspects of life.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed the children were not executed but were killed in crossfire. He insisted that the Taliban was not responsible for their deaths, and that Mr. Ahmad was an unintended victim, not a target, of the attack.
Still, he sought to justify the deaths as unfortunate casualties in an “unbalanced war” where air strikes by the American-led coalition have killed Afghan civilians. But “there is no acceptable way to defend the deaths of these children, and we regret their deaths,” he said in telephone an interview, as a child squealed in background.
Seddiq Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told reporters the young insurgents managed to sneak guns past the hotel guards and metal detectors by hiding them in their socks and wrapping them in plastic. He did not explain how the plastic would have shielded the guns from detection, and also suggested that the assailants may have had inside help.
Regardless of how they slipped past security, by the time they walked across the stone driveway and into the lobby, they appeared ready to celebrate, hotel staff said in interviews on Friday. Wearing trimmed beards and smart clothes, they told staff they planned to mark the Persian New Year in the hotel’s elegant dining room, where patrons enjoy nightly buffets of Western and Afghan fare.
But first they wandered around the Serena for a while, staff recalled, taking in its opulence, which differs starkly from the homes that even prosperous Afghans live in, never mind the mud hovels of the poor villagers from which the insurgent draw most of their fighters.
They even asked staff members when the Nowruz celebrations would start.
Then they settled in for their meal. They ate slowly, drawing the suspicion of several Afghans seated nearby in the dining room, according to members of the hotel staff. Mounting tension turned to violence as fearful patrons began throwing plates and glasses at the young insurgents.
The attackers responded by drawing their .25 caliber handguns and opening fire, according to a server in the dining room at the time.
The server, like other hotel workers interviewed, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the insurgents and the Afghan intelligence service, which instructed at least one witness not to speak with reporters.
After killing seven people in the dining room, they quickly moved toward the lobby where they killed two more people as they came under fire from the hotel’s armed guards.
One guard is believed to have killed an insurgent before his gun jammed, at which point he was shot in the arm, hotel staff members said.
Afghan security forces, including special commandos who have repeatedly handled similar situations in Kabul, overcame the attackers before midnight. Two insurgents were killed in the restaurant and another two in a nearby restroom, Mr. Seddiqi said.
Throughout the attack, frightened guests holed up in their rooms or found shelter in safety bunkers around the complex. Some called friends and colleagues around Kabul, trying to find out what was happening or simply seeking the solace of familiar voices.
The hotel remained under a heavy security blanket. Agents from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence service, commandeered cafe areas within the hotel to conduct interviews with staff and security officers on duty the night of the attack. Others were taken to the intelligence services headquarters for questioning.
Dan Bilefsky from Paris and Afghan employees of The New York Times from Kabul contributed reporting.