KABUL, (Reuters) – Four U.N. staff were killed when Taliban militants attacked an international guest house in Kabul on Wednesday while a rocket was fired at a foreign-owned hotel in the Afghan capital, forcing 100 guests into an underground bunker.
An increasingly resurgent Taliban have vowed to stage attacks ahead of a run-off in Afghanistan’s presidential election on Nov. 7 and the apparently coordinated assault on Wednesday will raise questions about security for the vote.
A U.N. spokesman said four U.N. staff had been killed but their nationalities were unclear. Afghan forces were exchanging gunfire with militants inside the house, police said. “There are five or six terrorists inside,” said Waheed Sadiqi, a policeman at the scene.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for taking hostages.
Intense automatic weapons fire and an explosion resounded in the capital, and plumes of black smoke rose above buildings.
Later, explosions hit the foreign-owned Serena luxury hotel and at least one rocket was fired at the building near the presidential palace, witnesses and security sources said. The hotel’s switchboard was not answering calls.
A foreigner staying at the hotel told Reuters from inside that more than 100 people were rushed to an underground bunker following the attacks but that no casualties could be seen.
A number of streets had been cordoned off by police as gunfire continued, and sirens reverberated across the city. “Several Taliban suiciders (took) hostage several U.N. workers in Kabul,” the Islamist movement said in an English-language text message sent to Reuters.
Police, fire trucks, ambulances, and armoured vehicles were parked near the guest house, while helicopters circled above.
Security forces brought one foreign woman out of the building who was crying and limping. A body was carried out but it was unclear if the victim was wounded or dead.
Violence has risen ahead of the presidential run-off.
Eight U.S. troops were killed in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, the NATO-led alliance said, in the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the start of the war eight years ago.
The mounting violence comes as U.S. President Barack Obama weighs whether to send more soldiers to Afghanistan to fight a Taliban insurgency at its fiercest since 2001.
Ahead of that decision, the New York Times reported that the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had been getting regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency and was a suspected player in Afghanistan’s opium trade.
Ahmed Wali Karzai was quoted as denying the report and the CIA neither confirmed nor denied the reported payments. “No intelligence organisation worth the name would ever entertain these kinds of allegations,” a CIA spokesman told Reuters.
The eight U.S. soldiers killed on Tuesday pushed the October death toll to 53, topping the previous high of 51 deaths in August, Pentagon officials said.
Efforts to stabilise Afghanistan have been complicated by weeks of political tension over an election in August marred by widespread fraud in favour of President Karzai, forcing the second round vote.
Karzai’s camp said on Tuesday a run-off must take place even if his challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, quits the race.
Karzai agreed last week to a run-off under severe international pressure after a U.N.-led fraud investigation annulled a large chunk of his votes in the original election.
U.S. soldiers now make up two-thirds of the 100,000-strong coalition force, with Obama considering proposals to send an extra 40,000 troops or a far smaller number.
Although most recent polls have shown a decline in American public support for the war, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday found 47 percent of respondents supported raising troop levels, with 43 percent opposed. That was a reversal from a similar poll in September.
As part of his review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Obama is set to meet on Friday with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the military services, the White House said.