Kabul: Taliban militants killed six UN foreign staff in an assault on an international guest-house in Kabul on Wednesday, raising questions about security for a presidential election run-off due in less than two weeks.
Rockets were also fired at a foreign-owned hotel in the Afghan capital, forcing 100 guests into a bunker.
An increasingly resurgent Taliban have vowed to stage attacks ahead of the run-off on 7 November and as US President Barack Obama weighs sending more soldiers to Afghanistan to fight an insurgency that has reached its fiercest level since 2001.
“The number right now is six dead, all of them UN staff,” said Adrian Edwards, Afghanistan United Nations mission spokesman, adding at least nine others were wounded in the attack on the guest-house.
Their nationalities were unclear. Afghan forces exchanged gunfire for hours with militants inside the house, police said.
The attackers reportedly wore police uniforms to secure entry into the guest-house. Later the bodies of three of the suspected suicide bombers, apparently ripped apart when they detonated their explosives, could be seen lying inside the compound.
Abdul Ghaim, a policeman at the scene, told Reuters: “We think they (the militants) are Pakistani.”
Many of the militant insurgents in Afghanistan either shelter in neighbouring Pakistan or are themselves Pakistanis. Both countries have active Taliban groups.
Officials said the shooting was over but one female guest at the house was still missing and a search was under way inside the building, which was covered by bullet holes and badly damaged, its walls charred and windows shattered.
“Several Taliban suiciders (took) hostage several UN workers in Kabul,” the Islamist movement said in an English-language text message sent to Reuters.
Explosions also hit the foreign-owned Serena luxury hotel and rockets were fired at the building near the presidential palace, witnesses and security sources said.
A foreigner staying at the hotel told Reuters more than 100 people were rushed to an underground bunker following the attacks but no casualties or smoke could be seen from the building, also attacked in January 2008 when six people were killed.
The entire area at the Serena had been blocked by security forces. All streets leading to key government buildings were cordoned off, and sirens wailed across the heart of the capital.
Efforts to stabilise Afghanistan have been complicated by weeks of political tension over an election in August marred by widespread fraud in favour of incumbent President Hamid Karzai, forcing the second-round vote.
Violence in Afghanistan has risen ahead of the run-off.
Eight US troops were killed in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, the NATO-led alliance said, in the deadliest month for US forces since the start of the war eight years ago.
US 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.
Ahead of that decision, the New York Times reported that the brother of Afghanistan’s president 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 payments.
“No intelligence organisation worth the name would ever entertain these kinds of allegations,” a CIA spokesman told Reuters.
The eight US soldiers killed on Tuesday pushed the October death toll to 53, topping the previous high of 51 deaths in August, Pentagon officials said.
Karzai’s camp said on Tuesday the 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 UN-led fraud investigation annulled a large chunk of his votes in the original election.
As part of his review of US 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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in neighbouring Pakistan on Wednesday, pledging a fresh start in relations with an increasingly embattled and sceptical partner in the struggle against Islamic militancy.
“We are turning the page,” Clinton told reporters as she began her first visit to Islamabad as the the top US diplomat amid rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and the expanding U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.