KABUL, Afghanistan – Striking at a symbol of the Western presence in Afghanistan, assailants armed with grenades, assault rifles and suicide vests stormed a heavily fortified luxury hotel in the heart of the capital Monday. The carefully coordinated assault killed at least six people, leaving trails of blood in the marble-floored lobby and forcing guests to cower behind locked doors or in the basement awaiting rescue.
The attack on the Serena Hotel, an incongruously deluxe five-star establishment in the rundown capital that is frequented by foreign delegations, Western aid workers and high-ranking Afghan officials, was the boldest such assault in recent memory.
The U.S. State Department said one American, not a government employee, was killed. The victim’s name was not released immediately because relatives had not been notified.
Another victim was a Norwegian journalist covering the visit of Norway’s foreign minister. Carsten Thomassen of the Dagbladet newspaper was identified by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“We mourn the loss,” said CPJ Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz. “Foreign and local journalists face numerous threats in countries like Afghanistan, where security is a rare commodity.”
The Norwegian foreign minister, who also was staying in the hotel, was unhurt, said news agencies citing Norway’s public broadcaster NRK. Several Norwegian journalists and embassy officials were believed to have been in the hotel at the time of the attack, apparently carried out by at least four assailants.
The Taliban, ousted from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001, claimed responsibility for the attack almost as soon as it had taken place. In a city where most people hurry home before dark, many were unaware that the assault had occurred.
A U.S. military official in Kabul, interviewed on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said dozens of American troops in Humvees converged on the hotel after receiving a panicked call for help from Afghan counterparts shortly after 6:15 p.m.
The 177-room hotel, in the center of a busy Kabul district and almost adjacent to the presidential palace, is walled off and protected by a fortified gate and blast barriers. The lobby is set back from the street entrance to the hotel compound, and all vehicles are searched before entering.
Many expatriates and Afghan officials use the Serena’s well-equipped gym, and Western embassies and military officials often avail themselves of its conference rooms and restaurants.
It was thought to be the first attack on the multimillion-dollar hotel, which opened in 2006 and charges as much for a single night’s stay as many Afghans make in a year.