Taliban Vows to Target Restaurants Popular Among Westerners; 4 Arrested in Hotel Bombing

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The Taliban said Tuesday that its suicide bombers will attack Kabul restaurants where Westerners eat, a sign of a new strategy that already has U.S. and European workers restricting their outings in the Afghan capital.

The deadly attack a day earlier on Kabul's well-guarded, high-profile Serena Hotel — where Westerners often dine and stay — was linked to a Pakistani militant, the Afghan intelligence chief said. Afghan authorities arrested four people, including one of the three suspected attackers, who was disguised in a police uniform.

The Taliban's warning came as the death toll rose to eight in the Serena bombing and shooting attack.

An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Philippine woman who died of her wounds Tuesday were among the casualties.

"We will target all these restaurants in Kabul where foreigners are eating," said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. "We have jihadists in Kabul right now and soon we will carry out more attacks against military personnel and foreigners."

Taliban spokesmen often say militants plan to increase their attacks. Such claims rarely come true, but the militants have increased the number of homicide bombings in the past two years, and the Serena attack was the first of its kind against a facility frequented by Westerners.

The security companies that protect international workers in Afghanistan restricted Westerners' movements Tuesday, placing restaurants and stores popular among foreigners off-limits for some.

Kabul has about half a dozen restaurants often visited by Westerners. The establishments — run by expatriates with theme menus like French or Mexican — do not allow Afghans to enter because they serve alcohol, which is illegal for Muslims here.

The restaurants are behind nondescript walls and advertise little, relying on word-of-mouth reputation to bring in customers.

Despite the attack, some Westerners in Kabul said they would continue to dine out.

"I will still go out, but not as often as before, maybe, and the venue now is more important," said Christoph Klawitter, the head of a German logistics company.

He said he dined out two or three times a week, sometimes at the Serena.

"The Serena was pretty secure, and even there they got in, so I don't know," he said. "The more security, the more likely it is I might go there."

More attacks on restaurants and other Western-associated establishments would likely restrict Westerners' freedom of movement even more, and eventually could force aid agencies out of the country, like attacks in Baghdad did.

"This is a new kind of target for the Taliban," Barney Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, wrote on his blog. "Foreigners going to restaurants in Kabul ... sometimes joke that they feel like targets. Up to now, however, they have not been."

Referring to the attack on the Serena, Rubin added: "I imagine it will not be the last" such attack.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council issued separate statements condemning the hotel attack and called for redoubled efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

"The attack will not diminish the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan," Ban said.

The Serena attack was a grim start to 2008 after a record level of violence last year, possibly showing that militants could be refining their strategy to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Western-backed campaign to stabilize Afghanistan.

Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, said police found a video made by two of the attackers in a home in Kabul, where they arrested two men. Police also arrested one of the attackers, while a fourth man — believed to have driven the attackers to the hotel — was arrested in eastern Afghanistan while trying to flee to Pakistan.

Saleh said three militants stormed the hotel. A guard shot and killed one attacker at the gate to its parking lot, triggering his suicide vest.

A second attacker blew himself up near the lobby entrance, and a third made it inside and shot his way through the lobby and toward the gym, Saleh said. The third had been wearing a police uniform during the attack, he said.

The three militants stormed the popular luxury hotel just after 6 p.m., hunting down Westerners hiding in the gym. More than 30 U.S. soldiers in a half-dozen Humvees rushed to the hotel, and security personnel from the nearby U.S. Embassy ran through the hotel in search of American citizens.

Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, was in her hotel room when the attack began. She said that a hotel employee led her to the basement, but that there was little protection until U.S. troops arrived.

The attack "certainly is a demonstration of intent by the Taliban to make their presence felt, and it also counters in a lot of ways this growing talk that they're responsible actors and let's include them in the (peace negotiations) process," said Ahmed.

Saleh said the attack was masterminded by Mullah Abdullah, a close ally of Siraj Haqqani, a well-known militant leader thought to be based in Miran Shah, the main town in Pakistan's lawless tribal region of North Waziristan. The U.S. military has a US$200,000 (euro134,355) bounty on Haqqani.

Saleh showed a picture taken from the hotel's security cameras showing a gunman in a police uniform — apparently the third attack — in the hotel's lobby.

"The third person, after killing a number of the guests, maybe he changed his mind for some reason. He didn't detonate himself," Saleh said. "He changed his clothes and later, when security forces searched the premises, he was arrested."

Early Tuesday authorities raided a Kabul house where the alleged attackers were believed to have spent the night before the attack. Police found a video showing two of the suspects, identified as Farouq and Salahuddin, saying they were ready to die.

"I commit this suicide attack for Allah," Farouq said in the video. He was believed to have blown himself up during the attack.

The Serena spokesman said three hotel employees and two guards were killed during the attack. Officials have said an American citizen and a Norwegian reporter also died, and the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department said a Philippine spa supervisor wounded in the attack died on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to eight.

The Taliban have targeted aid workers and civilian contractors with kidnappings and killings, but the Islamist militants have typically focused attacks on Western and Afghan officials or security personnel, not civilians.