Updated: 03/21/2014 17:03 | By Agence France-Presse

Taliban attack on Kabul hotel kills nine civilians

At least nine civilians including children and foreigners were killed in a Taliban attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan's interior ministry said Friday, the latest violence to hit the country just weeks before the presidential election.

Taliban attack on Kabul hotel kills nine civilians

Afghan pedestrians and commuters make their way past the security perimeter at the Serena hotel in Kabul, on March 21, 2014 - by Shah Marai

Four teenage gunmen with pistols hidden in their socks managed to penetrate several layers of security at the Serena hotel, a prestigious venue favoured by foreign visitors to the capital, on Thursday night.

The attack was claimed by the Taliban, who have vowed a campaign of violence to disrupt the April 5 poll.

One of the civilians killed in the attack was a former Paraguayan diplomat who was in Afghanistan as an election observer, Paraguay's Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga said.

The attackers reached the hotel's restaurant around 8:30 pm (1600 GMT) and began firing indiscriminately at diners, interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told a news conference.

Nine people were killed in the assault, five Afghans and four foreigners, he said, and the dead included four women and two children.

The foreign nationals were from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India, he said but made no mention of the Paraguayan.

The attack ended around 11:30 pm when Afghan security forces killed the last of the attackers, Sediqqi said, adding that most of the hotel guests had been able to take shelter in special safe rooms.

The attack occurred on the eve of Nawroz, the Persian New Year which is a major holiday in Afghanistan, and the hotel was hosting special celebrations.

"We believe that such attacks have a direct link to the upcoming elections, and the enemies try to stage such attacks to frustrate the people of Afghanistan about their future," Sediqqi said.

Loizaga named the Paraguayan election observer as Luis Maria Duarte, a lawyer who also worked for the United Nations.

"I heard some gunshots, and we all were taken by guards to the safe rooms," a front-desk clerk told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Jane Ferguson, an Al Jazeera television journalist staying at the hotel, said on Twitter she had "just got out of Serena hotel safe. Horrible few hours with furniture against my door."

- Hotel favoured by foreigners -

The Serena, the most upmarket accommodation in Kabul, has been targeted by militants in the past, including a Taliban suicide attack in 2008 that left eight people dead.

By upgrading its security, the Serena has continued to attract diplomats, foreign workers and Afghan businessmen to its two restaurants, coffee shop and gym complete with outdoor pool.

Sediqqi pointed to a failure of hotel security, as the attackers were able to smuggle six handguns and ammunition inside.

"We are investigating, but our initial conclusion is that a failure of the security structure of the hotel made the attack possible," he said.

"We have been requesting the hotel management to have our public protection force for their keep for the past two years, but they have turned down our offers saying they are confident of their guards in the hotel."

The attack comes less than a fortnight after Swedish radio journalist Nils Horner was gunned down in central Kabul.

Such a brazen assault on the Serena, a supposedly secure building, will send further shockwaves through Kabul's already rattled expatriate community.

It will also raise fears that independent foreign election monitors will be unable to do their job effectively -- heightening the risk of poll-rigging.

Thursday's attack came on the same day that seven Taliban suicide attackers stormed a police station in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing 10 policemen.

Taliban leaders earlier this month urged their fighters to attack polling staff, officials, voters and security forces before the election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed 16 people at a crowded market in the northern province of Faryab. There was no claim of responsibility for that attack.

Previous Afghan elections have been badly marred by violence as the Islamist militants displayed their opposition to the US-backed polls.

Another bloodstained election would damage claims by international donors that the expensive intervention in Afghanistan since 2001 has made progress in establishing a functioning state.

US-led NATO combat troops are withdrawing from the country after 13 years of fighting a fierce Islamist insurgency, which erupted when the Taliban were ousted from power after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Relations between Karzai and the US have been severely strained over the president's decision not to sign an agreed deal for a small US force to remain in Afghanistan from 2015 on counter-terrorism and training operations.

The election front-runners are Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in 2009, former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.

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