KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban insurgents Wednesday attacked a guesthouse used by the United Nations, killing five U.N. employees — including an American — and raising new concerns about terrorism and sabotage ahead of the Nov. 7 runoff election.
At least three militants, dressed in old police uniforms and armed with machine guns, grenades and suicide vests, stormed the privately owned Bakhtar guesthouse and set the building on fire early Wednesday morning. Some U.N. employees were able to escape through a back door, but fire trapped others on an upper floor, according to Wias Sherzai, the manager of the guesthouse.
By attacking and destroying a civilian lodging housing more than 30 U.N. employees — many of them here to monitor the election runoff — the insurgents signaled a tactical shift.
Previous attacks in Kabul have largely been directed against military targets and the Indian Embassy.
The Taliban, who claimed credit for Wednesday's attack, have denounced the election as "deceitful and foreign-made." They've urged militants to "make efforts to foil this wicked process" by carrying out operations against election centers.
The U.S. Embassy said the assault wouldn't change international support for elections here. "Attacking civilian workers will not lessen our determination to support the Afghan people and their election process," it said in a statement.
The U.N. has distributed international funds and provided technical support for the first round of Afghan elections, held Aug. 20. It also was deeply involved in the diplomacy that finally convinced President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff, triggered by a fraud investigation that tossed out hundreds of thousands of the incumbent fraudulent votes, most of them for Karzai. Some of the U.N. workers at the guesthouse where the attack occurred were involved in the elections, Sherzai said.
Five U.N. workers, including one American, died in the attack. Nine others were wounded, some of them critically with burns, U.N. officials said. Two Afghan security guards, and a civilian who lived near the guesthouse also died in the attack. Afghan security officials said police killed three insurgents who entered the compound, and none was able to detonate his suicide vest. A witness, however, said one had self-detonated.
"Certainly, this is the most serous incident that we have ever had had in Afghanistan, and we've been here for half a century," said Aleem Siddique, a U.N. spokesman in Kabul. "Obviously our main focus at this moment is on caring for the wounded. Over the coming days, we will be evaluating our security measures and the impact that this has for our work here in Afghanistan."
The U.N. sustained a major blow in 2003 in Baghdad, when a truck bomb killed 22 people at the U.N. mission and prompted the organization to pull out of Iraq for several years. U.N. officials said they won't back off from their mission in Afghanistan.
"The attack will not deter the U.N. from continuing all its work to reconstruct a war-torn country," said Kai Eide, who heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. "We will remain committed to the people of Afghanistan."
The attack began before 6 a.m. For more than an hour, gunfire and explosions echoed along the narrow streets of an upscale Kabul neighborhood of larges homes, shops and businesses.
The insurgents wore old police uniforms that might have been purchased in a market and may have helped them evade checkpoints on their way to the guesthouse. Loud explosions, perhaps from grenades, reverberated throughout the neighborhood. Long after the attack was over, plumes of brown smoke wafted into the crisp morning air.
"They burned the whole guesthouse down," said Sherzai, the manager. "Nothing is left."
Sherzai said he heard shots but never saw the attackers. He shouted to rouse sleeping U.N. workers, and said he was able to help 24 of them to safety through the back. Sherzai said he tried to return to help guests trapped by the fire on an upper floor but was held back by the flames and gunfire as police fought the attackers.
Chris Turner, an American security contractor who was at the guesthouse, told ABC News that one attacker did detonate his vest, and that the explosion killed a woman who was trying to make her way through the fire.
Turner, who fought the insurgents, said two other women panicked as they were trapped in the rooms by the flames and gunfire. "They were saying, 'What can we do, what should we do?' and crying 'We don't want to die . . . '" Turner was quoted as saying.
U.N. officials say that at least 30 organization workers were evacuated from the compound.
The guesthouse has more than 40 rooms, with more than 35 people lodged there at the time of the attack, most of them from the U.N. The guesthouse has some sandbags and small blast protection out front, and the time of the attack, it had five guards on duty. Two of them died and two were wounded in the attack.
Sherzai said he'd never received a direct threat to attack the guesthouse. About 9 months ago, however, he did receive an anonymous threat on his cell phone that warned he'd be killed for working at the guesthouse.
In a separate attack Wednesday, at least one rocket landed in a garden of the Serena Hotel in the heart of Kabul. No injuries were reported.
After nightfall, more intense gunfire could be briefly heard in several intense bursts in central Kabul.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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