KABUL (AFP) - At least eight civilians including children and foreigners were killed in a Taleban attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul, the spokesman for Afghanistan's interior ministry said on Friday, just weeks before the country's presidential election.
In a brazen assault, 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.
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 Taleban, who have vowed a campaign of violence to disrupt the election on April 5, claimed responsibility for the attack.
"8 civilian including, 3 women (2 foreigners), 3 men and 2 children were killed during the terrorist attack on Serena Hotel Kabul last night," interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on his official Twitter feed.
Deputy interior minister Mohammad Ayoub Salangi gave a death toll of nine - five Afghans and four foreigners.
Loizaga named the Paraguayan election observer as Luis Maria Duarte, a lawyer who also worked for the United Nations.
The four attackers entered the hotel around 6:00 pm on Thursday, pretending to be guests, and began firing around 9:00 pm.
They were later gunned down by Afghan security forces.
"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." Loizaga said the attackers reportedly hid in a bathroom and then burst into the hotel's restaurant and opened fire.
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.
The Serena, the most upmarket accommodation in Kabul, has been targeted by militants in the past, including a Taleban 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.
Thursday's attack came on the same day that seven Taleban suicide attackers stormed a police station in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing 10 policemen.
Taleban 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 military and civilian intervention in Afghanistan since 2001 has made progress in establishing a functioning state system.
US-led NATO combat troops are withdrawing from the country after 13 years of fighting a fierce Islamist insurgency, which erupted when the Taleban 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.
Another point of friction has been the release of Afghan prisoners that the US believes are dangerous militants.
On Thursday, 55 more prisoners were freed in a move that drew complaints from the NATO mission, which said the men had not been processed through the Afghan judicial system.
The election front-runners are Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in 2009, former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.