The representative of the International Monetary Fund, two Britons and four UN members have been killed in the deadliest violence against foreign civilians in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion.
Twenty-one people, including 13 foreigners, died when the Taliban attacked a restaurant in Kabul. Reports said a blast was detonated outside the Taverna du Libyan restaurant after which Taliban gunmen stormed inside and opened fire. Dharmender “Del” Singh, a British Labour candidate for the European Parliament, was among those who were killed.
“We can confirm the death of two British nationals in Afghanistan on 17 January,” said a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “We are providing consular assistance to the families at this difficult time.”
The FCO later confirmed that the second Briton to die was Simon Chase, a former Cheshire Regiment soldier originally from Liverpool, who had been living in Limavady in Co Londonderry with his partner before travelling to Kabul where he had been working as a bodyguard.
Kabul’s police chief, General Mohammad Zahir, said on Saturday that the majority of those killed were civilians who had come to the Lebanese restaurant to enjoy its celebrated food and atmosphere. He said three attackers, including a suicide bomber and two gunmen, were also killed during Friday night’s assault.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had been carried out in revenge for a US air strike last week in which eight civilians were killed. “The target of the attack was a restaurant frequented by high-ranking foreigners, where the invaders used to dine with booze and liquor in the plenty,” a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement.
The Afghan Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammad Ayoub Salangi, told the BBC that the two gunmen had entered the restaurant and started “indiscriminately killing” people inside. He said five women were among the dead.
Shots could be heard ringing across the capital’s diplomatic district for minutes after the first blast. Several kitchen staff survived by fleeing to the roof. The restaurant’s owner, Kamal Hamade, was reportedly killed as he tried to defend his establishment with an automatic weapon. He was found at the bottom of the stairs.
“When I was in the kitchen, I heard an explosion outside,” Suleiman, a cook at the restaurant, told Associated Press. “Then all the guys escaped up and I went to the roof and stayed with my back to the chimney for two or three hours.”
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, confirmed that its country chief, Wabel Abdallah, 60, a Lebanese national, was among those who died. He had been based in Afghanistan since 2008. Two Americans and two Canadians were also killed. “This is tragic news, and we at the fund are all devastated,” Ms Lagarde said in a statement.
At the same time, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack which left four UN staff dead. “Such targeted attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable and are in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law,” he said.
The attack on the restaurant in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan district comes as many foreign forces are preparing to withdraw most of their combat troops. The country is also preparing for an election in April when it will select a replacement for President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader is still in discussions on whether to permit US forces to remain in the country. If no deal is reached, Afghan forces will be almost entirely responsible for security.
The south and south-east of Afghanistan have seen most of the clashes between the security forces and the Taliban in the decade since US and UK forces invaded the country in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 in 2001. But Kabul has also suffered regular attacks.
Taliban fighters mounted several attacks in the capital during the summer months of last year, but the assault on Friday inflicted higher casualties. With attacks still happening on a daily basis, Afghanistan and the United States are struggling to agree on a security pact, raising the prospect that Washington may yet pull out all of its troops this year.
The bombed restaurant had been a favourite location for foreigners, including diplomats, contractors, journalists and aid workers. Two armed guards were reportedly normally on duty at the front entrance, which led to a courtyard in front of the ground-floor dining room. The suicide bomb attack took place at the front entrance, but accounts differed over where the gunmen had entered from. Foreign casualties were taken to a military base in Kabul. At a hospital morgue near the attack, Afghans screamed and cried as they mourned the victims.
The American University of Afghanistan said that two of its employees were among those killed. Michael Smith, president of the private non-profit institution, said yesterday that families of the victims were being informed and arrangements made to send the remains home. One had just recently joined the faculty of political science and the other was a member of the student affairs staff, he added.
Mr Singh had worked around the world in international development, for the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. He had been in Britain for a week in December before returning to Afghanistan as part of his role as an international adviser supporting the Afghan Budget Department in Kabul at Adam Smith International. His colleague, Malaysian adviser Gnana Nagarajah, was also killed in the blast.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, paid tribute to Mr Singh’s “vital work” on development projects in countries including Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sudan and Sierra Leone. “My thoughts – and the thoughts of the whole Labour Party – are with the family and friends of Del Singh, who was killed in yesterday’s tragic suicide bomb in Kabul,” he said. “People everywhere will be appalled and shocked by this barbarous act of terror deliberately targeting members of the international community living and working in Kabul in the service of the Afghan people.”
Mr Miliband added: “He dedicated his life to working with people across the world who needed his support.”
Claude Moraes, a deputy leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, described Mr Singh as a “talented young activist with his whole future ahead of him”. The Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East tweeted: “We lost a son, a brother, a friend in the brutal attack ... still can’t believe you’re gone.”
William Morrison, managing director of Adam Smith International, said: “Del was skilled at drawing people together. His presence made meetings flow more smoothly, and helped difficult negotiations reach amicable conclusions. His professionalism, reliability and irrepressible good humour made him well known throughout the Budget Department and the close international community in Kabul. Del was the sort of person who was always welcome in any room or any discussion. It was impossible to be bored or out-of-sorts when Del was around.
“His constant stream of witty remarks and clever jokes could make anyone laugh. But his levity could only partly mask his deep commitment to the work he had chosen.”