Four gunmen were swift as they entered the Serena Hotel, a luxury lodging in Kabul, although it took them a few minutes to find the restaurant that was their target. Afghan officials pieced together the details of a Thursday attack that left nine people dead, including four foreigners and two children who were shot in the head.
The Afghan capital has been hit by several attacks, but authorities appeared stunned that the fighters had managed to get through tight security at the Serena Hotel — considered one of the safest places to stay in Kabul.
Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, 40, an Afghan journalist for Agence France-Presse, killed along with his wife and two of his children, the French news agency confirmed. It said the family's youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Ahmad also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 to become the agency's senior reporter in Kabul. He covered all aspects of life, war and politics in his native Afghanistan, according to a statement tweeted by the agency.
In response, an association of reporters in the country, the Afghan Journalist Family, imposed a 15-day boycott of Taliban-related coverage.
"The Taliban carry out such attacks, which can never be justified, solely for the purposes of news coverage and projecting terror among Afghan citizens," the journalist group wrote on Facebook, according to ABC News, which is a member of the organization. "We also ask the Taliban for an explanation of how they justify the shooting from a close-range of innocent children."
The shooting spree is the latest in a series of high-profile attacks as the Taliban and allied fighters step up a campaign of violence before national elections on April 5.
It comes on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings targeting foreigners in Kabul, something that had been relatively rare. Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street execution-style, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
The attacks show the Taliban are following through on their threat to use violence to disrupt next month's elections. The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group claimed responsibility for the hotel attack, saying it shows that "our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it."
The restaurant in the Serena Hotel was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said most of the civilians were killed when two of the attackers walked into the restaurant and began shooting, while the others were shot to death as the gunmen made their way through the hotel. Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the cordoned-off streets outside.
He said the four foreigners killed were from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India, but the New Zealand and Pakistani foreign ministries denied any of their citizens were among the dead. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that a woman from New Zealand was in the Serena at the time of the attack but was unharmed. Islamabad said no Pakistani nationals were killed.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements since the attack began Thursday night, citing the chaos and the need to focus on protecting hotel guests.
The attackers reached the hotel at 8:30 p.m., evading security checks by hiding small pistols and ammunition in their socks and the soles of their shoes, Sediqqi said.
Afghan authorities initially said only two security guards had been wounded and the assault began at 6 p.m. but later changed their account.
The attackers appeared to be about 18 years old, and all were killed, Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and shoes in which they hid their weapons.
In other violence, an explosion struck a Nowruz ceremony, killing three people in the southern province of Kandahar on Friday.
Police spokesman Zia Durani said fighters threw an explosives-packed bottle that blew up when it landed, which he called a new tactic.
Those killed included the head of the provincial media center and two policemen, Durani said, adding that seven other people were wounded.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press