The 177-room Serena is a newly built luxury hotel frequently used by foreign embassies for meetings, parties and dinners. The nicest hotel in the city, visiting Westerners often stay, eat and work out there. Located in downtown Kabul, it is near the presidential palace, although separated by fences, blast walls and checkpoints. It is also near several government ministries and a district police station.
Huddled in the gym locker room of the Hotel Serena with five other women, Suzanne Griffin could hear the explosions and gunfire _ so close that it chipped away the ceiling above her. (AP) With a shaking voice, she recalled that they all kept quiet and even turned their cell phones to ring silently. When Griffin was finally evacuated, the 62-year-old worker for Save the Children said said she had to step over a woman’s lifeless body. Militants throwing grenades and firing AK-47s stormed Kabul’s most popular luxury hotel Monday evening, breaching heavy security and hunting down Westerners. At least six people were killed, including an American and a journalist from Norway. The coordinated assault at the Serena, including a thunderous suicide explosion, killed six people and could signal a new era of brazen Taliban attacks. More than 30 U.S. soldiers in a half-dozen Humvees rushed to the hotel as part of a quick reaction force, and security personnel from the nearby U.S. Embassy ran through the building looking for U.S. citizens. It was the deadliest direct attack on a hotel in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. “Thank God I didn’t get into the shower because then we heard gunfire, a lot of it. It was very close, close enough that plaster came off the ceiling,” Griffin said. “We all just sat on the floor and got as far as we could from any glass. … We turned our phones on silent.” The assailants appeared to concentrate their assault on the Serena’s gym and spa, where foreigners relax and work out at night, suggesting the militants had cased the hotel in advance. The Taliban has targeted aid workers and civilian contractors with kidnappings and killings, but this was the most daring and sophisticated attack yet and was aimed at a prominent symbol of foreign presence in the country, apparently designed to point out the vulnerability of the Western presence. Taliban attacks have typically targeted Western and Afghan government or security personnel, not Western civilians. Witnesses said they first heard gunfire, then several explosions _ likely from hand grenades _ and also one large blast _ the suicide bomb. “There were two or three bombs and there was complete chaos,” Stian L. Solum, a photographer from the Norwegian photo agency Scanpix, told Norway’s state radio network NRK. “When I started to walk out (of the elevator), a bomb went off a little way from me. There were shots fired by what I think was an ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier.” The attack killed six people and wounded six, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. He spoke before news of the Norwegian journalist’s death and it was not clear whether he was counted among the six dead. One of the militants was shot to death and a Taliban spokesman said a second died in the suicide explosion. It was not clear what happened to the other attackers. Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told AP that four militants with suicide vests attacked the hotel _ one bomber who detonated his explosives and three militants who threw grenades and fired guns. The claim could not be verified but came very soon after the attack. The bomber was not included among the count of the dead. In Washington, two State Department officials said that one American citizen had been killed. The victim’s identity was being withheld pending notification of relatives, the official said on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the attack was carried out by extremists “killing innocent people to pursue their political objectives. “It underscores the reason we have to stay on the offense against the extremists in places like Kabul but also in other places around the world,” she said. “We’re in for a long, hard fight. These are deliberate, patient people who will murder innocents including our own people.” There are more than 50,000 troops from at least 39 countries, including about 25,000 U.S. forces, in Afghanistan. A reporter for the Oslo newspaper Dagbladet, identified as Carsten Thomassen, 38, died from wounds he sustained in the attack, according to the paper’s Web site. “We feel great sorrow and powerlessness,” managing editor Anne Aasheim said. The Committee to Protect Journalists mourned Thomassen’s killing, calling it a reminder of the dangers that exist in countries like Afghanistan. A Norwegian Foreign Ministry employee was also among the wounded but was out of danger at a Kabul hospital, officials said. Stoere, who was in the hotel basement with a Norwegian delegation at the time, said he was about to start a meeting when the explosions hit, and everyone was ordered to get on the floor for about 10 minutes. On its Web site, the hotel bills itself as an “oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city.” The Serena has a double-gated entrance for cars, several armed guards and a metal detector at the entrance. While the number of casualties from the attack could have been higher, the militants were still able to penetrate a well-guarded and high-profile target, a symbol of progress in an otherwise downtrodden capital. The reverberations of the attack could be felt for months. While Western aid workers, embassy employees and businessmen enjoy a fair amount of freedom of movement in Kabul, security companies could now restrain their Western clients from visiting restaurants at night if the Taliban start targeting them. Griffin had contacted the U.S. Embassy, which told her to not open the door to the room unless she heard an American voice. U.S. soldiers evacuated her, she said. Stoere said Afghan President Hamid Karzai called to express his concern, and offered assistance, including accommodation in the presidential residence if needed. In 2003, a rocket exploded near the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, knocking some guests from their restaurant chairs and shattering windows. No injuries were reported.