Taliban signal new approach with suicide attack on luxury hotel

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A Taliban suicide squad stormed a five-star hotel in Kabul yesterday, killing at least six people and wounding more than six others. Witnesses said three gunmen burst past security guards at dusk, after a fourth man exploded his suicide vest at the armoured front gate. Police said the squad of raiders used rocket-propelled grenades on the gates.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades, the men ran inside the Serena Hotel and opened fire at random, hitting guests and hotel staff. Two Norwegians, a diplomat and a journalist, were wounded, one of them seriously. Secondary blasts suggested the attackers hurled grenades into the hotel, which has floor-to-ceiling windows.

It is the first time the Taliban have launched an organised attack against a Western civilian target.

The Norwegian foreign minister and his ambassador were in the hotel, popular with foreign diplomats and government contractors but they were not hurt.

The British embassy had used the hotel to host a black-tie Christmas ball but they confirmed none of their staff were inside at the time.

Guests said at least two women, including a receptionist, were injured in the hotel lobby. Others claimed dozens of people had been caught by bullets, shrapnel and flying glass. One of the gunmen killed a hotel attendant at the hotel gym.

An American charity worker in the gym, Suzanne Griffin, who works for Save the Children, said: "We had to step over a woman's dead body. She was one of the gym people."

Afghan police cordoned off the area and five American Humvees and British soldiers in armoured land cruisers arrived to support the hotel's evacuation.

Ambulances took the casualties to some nearby Nato hospitals while UN security chiefs were trying to contact their staff stranded in the hotel.

At one point, police feared a Taliban gunman had made his way to the hotel roof to attack the emergency response teams on the streets outside.

American troops with night-vision goggles stormed the hotel to search for the attackers. Almost two hours after the attack began, a series of flashes, which troops claimed were stun-grenades, could be seen from inside the hotel compound. Afghan police said they had arrested one of the attackers, as special forces made a room-by-room search.

An interior ministry spokesman, Zamerai Bashery, said the assault represented a worrying shift in the insurgent tactics. "The enemies of Afghanistan are trying to destabilise the country in different ways, using different tactics," he said. "This is the first time they managed in the heart of Kabul to carry out this kind of attack. They have changed their tactics, so we will take suitable steps."

The Serena is the only five-star hotel in Afghan-istan. At £100 a night, a room costs more than a month's wages for most Afghans. It is part-owned by the Aga Khan Foundation and staffed mainly by Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Taliban are hardline Sunni Muslims. But, last night, Taliban sources claimed they targeted the hotel because the Norwegian diplomats were staying there.