Taliban militants wearing suicide vests and police uniforms stormed a guest house used by U.N. staff in the heart of the Afghan capital early Wednesday, killing 12 people — including six U.N. staff. It was the biggest in a series of attacks intended to undermine next month's presidential runoff election.
A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the early morning assaults, which also included rocket attacks at the presidential palace and the city's main luxury hotel.
The chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said the attack "will not deter the U.N. from continuing all its work" in the country. One of the six U.N. dead was an American, the U.S. Embassy said.
The two-hour attack on the guest house where some 20 U.N. election workers were staying sent people running and screaming outside, with some jumping out upper-story windows to escape a fire that broke out.
John Turner, a trucking contractor from Kansas City, Mo., said he held off attackers with a Kalashnikov until a group of guests escaped through the laundry room.
Flushed and with black stains on his hands and face, Turner said the attackers appeared well organized and were able to penetrate the building, located on a residential street.
He said 40 people were staying at the guest house, of whom about 25 took refuge in the laundry room at the back of the building under his protection.
"I am armed. I carry an AK-47 and I kept firing it to keep the attackers away from the group I was guarding," he said. The group later jumped over a back wall to take refuge in a house behind the guest house, he said.
"It is all plastic in there," he said, explaining how quickly the fire spread. "There was so much smoke, two women were completely overwhelmed."
Miles Robertson, an Australian working as an election adviser, said he and his wife fled to a closet in their bedroom when they heard gunfire.
"We made sure the door was locked. I actually put my wife in the cupboard to hide, and made the room look as if it wasn't occupied," Robertson said as he retrieved belongings from the burned-out guest house in the afternoon.
But then the fire broke out inside the house. Robertson said it appeared to be in the room next door.
"We realized that there was no way for us to go out under the stairs or any way for us to come outside," said Robertson, a lanky middle-aged man wearing a sweat shirt. "I opened the window and stepped out to the landing out front, and had a volley of shots fired at me."
So he ducked back into the bedroom, but it had filled with smoke and he was worried about dying of smoke inhalation.
"I went bathroom, wet a towel and kept it over the face of my wife and myself as we crouched beside the window," he said.
Meanwhile, outside, "there was a lot of indistinguishable yelling and calling." Robertson said he made four phone calls to people saying they had about 10 minutes to get them out "because obviously the place was on fire."
He was too exhausted to finish the account, but his colleague said the Robertsons eventually climbed out a window as the fire raged and scrambled over the roofs of neighboring houses to a friend's home nearby.
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 Serena Hotel, which is 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 an Afghan witness who asked that his name not be used for security reasons.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack as "an inhuman act" and called on the army and police to strengthen security around all international institutions.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attacks in a telephone call to The Associated Press, saying three militants with suicide vests, grenades and machine guns carried out the guest house assault.
He said three days ago that the Taliban issued a statement threatening anyone working on the Nov. 7 runoff election between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah.
"This is our first attack," he said.
An official with the U.N. election team said that the Bakhtar guest house was home to the largest concentration of U.N. election workers in the city. The official, who was not authorized to speak to the press so spoke anonymously, did not give a specific number of election workers staying there, but said it was around 20.
Witnesses said the attack started shortly before 6 a.m and lasted for about two hours. Interior Ministry officials said the attackers were wearing old-style police uniforms, which are available in markets. In the southern city of Kandahar, security officials also warned international organizations to be alert to possible suicide attacks.
U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards said six U.N. staff were killed and nine other U.N. employees were wounded in the assault, which began about dawn in the Shar-e-Naw area of the city. Terrified guests fled the building during the assault — some screaming for help and others jumping from upper floors as flames engulfed part of the three-story building.
Afghan police and U.N. officials said 12 people in all were killed, including the U.N. staff, three attackers, two security guards and an Afghan civilian. The bodies of the attackers were taken out of the house and sent for autopsies, said Gul Mohammad, an officer at the scene.
It was not immediately known how the victims were killed or how the fire started, but witnesses said they heard prolonged gunfire ringing from the house before police arrived at the scene. It also was not immediately clear whether there were any other attackers besides the three killed.
Police were seen pulling the charred body of what appeared to be a woman from a second-floor bedroom. One officer carried an injured German man by piggyback away from the scene.
Edwards said officials were trying to account for several other U.N. workers who were staying at the guest house. He did not know their nationalities but said they were non-Afghans.
"This has clearly been a very serious incident for us," Edwards said. "We've not had an incident like this in the past."
Edwards said the U.N. would have to evaluate "what this means for our work in Afghanistan." The Aug. 19, 2003, truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, prompted the U.N. to pull out of Iraq for several years.
A security guard, Noor Allah, said he saw a woman screaming for help in English from a second-story window and watched as terrified guests leapt from windows. Afghan police using ladders rescued at least one wounded foreigner.
Afghans are to vote Nov. 7 in a second-round election after U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes from the Aug. 20 ballot, determining widespread fraud. That pushed Karzai's totals below the 50 percent threshold needed for a first-round victory in the 36-candidate field. AP