Updated: 03/22/2014 23:59 | By Agence France-Presse

No breakthrough in Kabul hotel attack probe

Afghan authorities struggled Saturday to understand how four Taliban gunmen managed to penetrate Kabul's high-security Serena hotel and kill nine people, including an AFP journalist.

No breakthrough in Kabul hotel attack probe

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul, on March 22, 2014 - by Wakil Kohsar

The teenage attackers struck on Thursday evening, opening fire in a hotel restaurant to begin their deadly onslaught.

The victims included AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of his three children, along with five foreigners -- two Canadians, an American and a Paraguayan.

Ahmad's infant son remained in intensive care on Saturday being treated for bullet wounds to the head, chest and leg.

The attack, claimed by the Taliban, was the latest violence ahead of the April 5 election, when Afghans will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in what will be the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power.

From the outside the 177-room Serena looks more like a fortress than a luxury hotel -- a large wall protects the main entrance and before entering, guests must pass through a metal detector and be searched.

The fact the attackers were able to smuggle six handguns and ammunition through these multiple checks has prompted some to ask whether they had an accomplice on the inside -- or whether it was simply a failure of the hotel security.

Sediq Seddiqi, the spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry, told AFP there had been no immediate breakthrough in the probe.

"It is an ongoing investigation by the NDS (the Afghan spy agency) and the ministry of interior," he told AFP.

"We have launched a major probe into what appears to have been a very sophisticated attack."

- 'No chance to escape' -

Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayoub Salangi described the bloody horror the gunmen unleashed as the hotel celebrated Nawroz, the Persian new year that is a major holiday in Afghanistan, after watching CCTV footage.

After entering the hotel the gunmen hid in the toilets, apparently waiting for the restaurant to fill with diners.

The attackers had hidden small handguns in their socks to smuggle them past security and retrieved them before heading for the restaurant, Salangi said.

Once there, they opened fire first at a member of parliament who was sitting at a table.

"When another MP, Farhad Sediqi, saw this, he threw a tray with plates at the attackers and managed to escape, running out of the room," Salangi said.

"Sardar and his family had no chance to escape as they were in the corner and shot in the head and face by the attackers."

The attack ended when Afghan security forces killed the last of the gunmen.

- 'Odious attack' -

Ahmad, 40, was a pillar of AFP's Kabul bureau, where he had worked since 2003. His funeral and those of his wife and children will be held on Sunday.

Tributes poured in from around the world on Saturday for a journalist known and respected for his energy, good humour and dedication.

French President Francois Hollande said Ahmad had been cut down in an "odious attack" and expressed his "emotion and solidarity" with Ahmad's family and friends, in a letter to AFP chairman Emmanuel Hoog.

"Sardar Ahmad was a passionate journalist, dedicated to explaining the complexity of the story of Afghanistan with intelligence and finesse," Hollande wrote.

Some Afghan journalists have said they will boycott coverage of the Taliban for 15 days in protest at Ahmad's killing.

In a speech marking the start of the school year on Saturday, Karzai urged Afghan students to honour Ahmad's slain children by getting educated and leading the country forward.

"Two of our children that were killed the day before yesterday at the hands of terrorists... would be happy to see that though the terrorists have killed them, millions of children are going to school with a smile," Karzai said.

But Ahmad's nephew Torak Mohammad criticised Karzai, who last month described the Taliban as "brothers" in an interview with Britain's Sunday Times.

"If Karzai calls Taliban brothers, he should come to our house and see the four coffins, see the bodies of the kids," Mohammad said on Saturday.

Thursday's brazen assault on a supposedly secure venue is the third serious attack in Kabul this year targeting foreigners or places where foreigners gather.

The surge in this type of violence will raise fears that independent poll monitors will be unable to work effectively, threatening the credibility of the April 5 vote.

A disputed result would put whoever wins the election in a weak position as Afghan security forces take on the Taliban without NATO's 53,000 combat troops behind them.

US-led NATO forces are withdrawing after 13 years fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, which erupted when the Islamists were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

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