KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan president on Thursday condemned the Taliban attack on a Kabul guesthouse the previous night that killed 14 people, including nine foreigners, and said the brutal slayings will not undermine his government's efforts to achieve peace and stability.
Wednesday's attack was the most audacious assault by the insurgents in the Afghan capital since the start of their spring offensive. The foreigners killed included an American, a British citizen, an Italian, four Indian nationals and two Pakistanis.
Gunmen stormed the restaurant of the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul as it was hosting a party for foreigners around 8:30 p.m. local time, according to Kabul police chief Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi. The victims were killed during an hours-long siege that ended early Thursday morning.
Five Afghans were also among the dead and seven were wounded, including one Afghan policeman.
Though the Taliban have staged similar attacks in the past on Kabul hotels and guesthouses — typically extremely well-guarded locations for the ever-dwindling number of foreigners living and working here — the latest assault was a blow to Ghani's government, which has been eager to project a sense of improvement in the security situation in the capital.
But since the U.S. and NATO forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of last year, Afghan security forces have struggled to fend off Taliban attacks on their own.
Ghani's statement said he had spoken to the leaders of the nations whose citizens were killed. He lashed out at the Taliban, saying the "terrorists and enemies of Afghanistan cannot harm our country's relationships with other countries with these activities."
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan also condemned the assault, saying in a statement Thursday that it was an "atrocity."
"Taliban statements on avoiding civilian casualties ring hollow when we set them against the latest killings," said UNAMA's human rights director Georgette Gagnon.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in an email distributed to media. Their spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the hotel was targeted because of the presence of foreigners, including Americans there. In the claim, he said only one attacker was involved, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, a suicide vest and a pistol — not three as the Afghan government reported. The Taliban often exaggerate their claims.
The Afghan police, which kept the hotel cordoned off on Thursday, said all the attackers were killed in the shootout with security troops.
Earlier, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Monica Cummings said in an email statement that a U.S. citizen was killed in the attack, although she had no further details and did not identify the victim. Cummings said the U.S. Embassy was in close contact with Afghan authorities and was working to obtain more information.
"Our thoughts are with the families of the victims," she said.
India's Ambassador Amar Sinha confirmed Thursday that four Indian nationals were also among the dead - three men and a woman. He said they were among a total of 11 Indians residing at the guesthouse, none of whom are embassy personnel.
The guesthouse had about 100 residents, he said.
In Rome, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that one of the dead was Italian, according to the ANSA news agency. Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, in Turkey for a NATO meeting, identified him as Sandro Abati. He said he was a consultant for an agency that works to promote investment in Afghanistan, ANSA said.
The British Embassy in Kabul issued a statement saying that a dual British-Afghan national was also killed in the attack. And Akhter Munir, press counsellor at the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul confirmed that two Pakistani nationals, a finance manager and a consultant, were also killed in the attack.
Throughout the standoff, sporadic gunfire echoed around the guesthouse in a central neighborhood that is home to United Nations compounds and a foreign-run hospital.
At one point, two explosions could be heard and four ambulances and fire trucks later arrived at the scene. Police initially freed some 20 people trapped inside the guesthouse, but others had remained inside, according to Zia Massoud, an Afghan government official. At least 54 hostages were rescued in all, according to Afghan officials.
At the scene, Amin Habib, a U.S. citizen from Los Angeles, told the AP that a party was going on at the hotel to honor a Canadian when the gunmen stormed the guesthouse. He said dozens of people, including foreigners and U.S. citizens, were inside the hotel at the time.
Canada's Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said all staff at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul were "safe and accounted for."
The hotel has both guest rooms for visitors and a residential area for those who live full time in Kabul, including foreign aid workers.
In March 2014, the Taliban stormed the Serena Hotel where guests had gathered at the restaurant for a buffet dinner to celebrate the Persian New Year. Nine people in all were shot at close range and killed in the attack, which was particularly shocking because the luxury hotel was long considered one of the safest places in Kabul to stay. The dead included four foreigners, an Afghan businessman and an Afghan journalist, his wife and two of his three children.
And in January 2014, the Taliban attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, killing 21 people, making it the deadliest single attack against foreign civilians in the course of a nearly 13-year U.S.-led war there.
Wednesday's attack showed how much the Taliban have been able to adapt to the tightened security situation in the Afghan capital, where smuggling in large amounts of weaponry has become increasingly difficult, a diplomat said.
"Everyone had been expecting a big Taliban attack on Kabul to mark the launch of the spring offensive, something like a truck bomb, but that didn't happen," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "So they come with smaller weapons and firearms."
The Taliban stepped up their attacks against Afghan security forces across the country after launching their annual spring offensive last month. The offensive coincides with the melting of snow in the mountains and the start of warmer weather that allows them to more easily traverse the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border.