An overnight Taliban attack on a Kabul guesthouse that left 14 people dead, including nine foreigners, was reportedly targeted at the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, a senior Afghan official and security sources in Delhi said on Thursday.
The most audacious assault by the insurgents in the Afghan capital since the start of their spring offensive claimed four Indians, including a woman.
In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani’s envoy, Ahmad Zia Massoud, told media that militants attacked a guest house in an upmarket area on Wednesday night thinking Indian ambassador Amar Sinha was in the compound.
Sinha was scheduled to visit Park guest house for a Hindustani classical concert by Ustaad Altaf Hussain. Shortly before the concert, armed gunmen stormed the place popular with foreigners.
Hussain was present in the guest house during the attack and he is safe, according to the Indian embassy in Kabul. He was among seven Indians present at the site of the attack, which ended after a seven-hour operation.
This is the second attack against Indians in Afghanistan within a year. Last year, heavily armed gunmen ambushed the Indian consulate in Herat. The assault that took place in May was reportedly meant to cast a shadow over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, in which then Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai was a special invitee.
In Wednesday's Taliban assault, the full breakdown of the nationalities of the nine foreigners who were killed was not immediately known; but an American, a British citizen and an Italian, apart from the four Indians, lost their lives.
Among them, seven were men and two were women, according to the Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media. Five Afghans were also among the dead - four men and one woman - 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 President Ashraf Ghani's government which has been eager to project a sense of improvement in the security situation in the capital.
But since the US 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.
The UN mission in Afghanistan 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 by their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid, who said the hotel was targeted because of the presence of foreigners, including Americans there. In the claim, Mujahid 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 kept the hotel cordoned off on Thursday. Earlier, they said all the attackers were killed in the shootout with security troops.
The attack began around 8:30pm local time when the gunmen opened fire at the hotel restaurant, according to Kabul police chief Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi.
US embassy spokesperson Monica Cummings said in an email statement that a US citizen was killed in the attack, although she had no further details and did not identify the victim. Cummings said the US 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.
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.
Also Thursday, the British embassy in Kabul issued a statement saying that a dual British-Afghan national was 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 US 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 US citizens, were inside the hotel at the time.
Canada's foreign affairs spokesperson 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 US-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.