U.N. workers scramble over roofs during attackTerrified U.N. workers scrambled over the roof or leaped from windows to escape choking smoke and gunfire after being awakened at dawn Wednesday when Taliban militants wearing police uniforms stormed a residential hotel packed with foreigners.
By: By Robert H. Reid and Heidi Vogt, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
KABUL (AP) — Terrified U.N. workers scrambled over the roof or leaped from windows to escape choking smoke and gunfire after being awakened at dawn Wednesday when Taliban militants wearing police uniforms stormed a residential hotel packed with foreigners.
The assault, which killed 11 people including three militants, was one of a series of brazen attacks aimed at undermining the Nov. 7 presidential election runoff. It underscored the risks facing U.N. and Afghan officials in organizing the vote and the massive challenge for the U.S.-led military force in curbing the determined insurgency.
Those challenges were highlighted across the border in Pakistan, where a car bomb killed 100 people — mostly women and children — while visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the capital of Islamabad pledging support for the Pakistani campaign against Islamic militants.
Five U.N. employees, including an American, were among those killed at the guest house in Kabul. Nationalities of the other U.N. victims were not released.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the assault as well as rocket attacks at the presidential palace and the city’s main luxury hotel. The Taliban have warned Afghans that they risk attacks if they do not stay away from the polls for next week’s runoff.
The visibly shaken chief of the United Nations’ mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told reporters the attack “will not deter the U.N. from continuing all its work” in the country.
“We will not be deterred from this noble mission,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York.
Yet the brazen assault showed the vulnerability of the foreign community and the ease with which the Taliban can launch attacks — even in a city that has been relatively secure despite eight years of war.
The two-hour attack began shortly before 6 a.m. when three gunmen wearing green uniforms and suicide vests broke into the three-story Bakhtar residential hotel, home to the largest concentration of U.N. staffers working on the election. The crackle of gunfire echoed across the city and explosions set fire to the building, filling the lobby and the upper floors with thick, choking smoke.
“I was praying when suddenly I heard loud gunfire, then return fire,” said Agha Mohammad Osman, who lives nearby. “We ran inside our homes to remain safe. The gunfire hit the door and then the attackers got inside the guest house. Foreign guests inside were crying out for help, but we could not help them.”
Exhausted survivors spoke of terror inside the residential hotel, with flames engulfing much of the building while U.N. guards tried desperately to fight off the determined attackers.
Miles Robertson, an Australian working as an election adviser, said he and his wife were awakened by the gunfire. Fearing they would be taken hostage, Robertson bolted the door while his wife hid in the closet.
“Shortly after that, fire started in the room next to us,” Robertson said breathlessly. “We realized that there was no way for us to go out. I opened the window and stepped out to the balcony and had a volley of shots fired at me.”
As smoke billowed into the room, Robertson and his wife placed moist towels over their faces, climbed out a window and scrambled over the roof until they jumped to safety.
John Christopher “Chris” Turner of Kansas City, Mo., who works for a trucking company on contract to the U.S. military, said he grabbed an AK-47 rife and scampered through the upper floors, pounding on doors to alert his fellow residents.
Turner said he assembled about 25 terrified guests and, along with a Nepalese man, gave covering fire as they led the group into the laundry room. He said they locked themselves inside as U.N. guards returned fire.
“I carry an AK-47 and I kept firing it to keep the attackers away from the group I was guarding,” Turner said. The group later jumped over a back wall to take refuge in a house behind the hotel, he said.
Turner called his father in suburban Kansas City after the attack, 82-year-old Lionel Turner told the AP.
“He said he was burned a little, but that he wasn’t hurt,” the father said. “He’s got more guts than a Missouri mule.”
It was not possible to reach others who had been staying at the guest house to verify Turner’s account. U.N. staff were evacuated to Dubai for counseling, the U.N. said. Turner did not have a weapon when he spoke with an Associated Press reporter.
About a mile away from the guest house, one rocket struck the “outer limit” of the presidential palace but caused no casualties, presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said. Two more rockets slammed into the grounds of the expensive Serena Hotel, favored by many foreigners.
One failed to explode but filled the hotel lobby with smoke, forcing guests and employees to flee to the basement, according to British freelance journalist Kate Holt, who was staying in the hotel.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks as “an inhuman act” and called on the army and police to strengthen security around all international institutions.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility in a telephone call to the AP, saying three militants with suicide vests, grenades and machine guns carried out the guest house assault. The Interior Ministry said there were three attackers and all were killed.
“This is our first attack,” Mujahid said.
U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards said five U.N. staffers were killed and nine were wounded.
Afghan police and U.N. officials said 11 people in all were killed, including three attackers, two security guards and the brother-in-law of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful governors, Gul Agha Sherzai. The man was killed by a stray bullet as he watched the gunfight from a nearby house, according to provincial spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.
Edwards said the U.N. would have to evaluate “what this means for our work in Afghanistan.”