Nine people have been killed in an attack at a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital, including four foreigners and two children who were shot in the head.
The four gunmen were swift as they entered the luxury hotel in Kabul, although it took them a few minutes to find the restaurant that was their target.
The Afghan capital has been hit by several attacks, but authorities appeared stunned that the militants had managed to get through the tight security at the Serena hotel.
The shooting spree was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks as the Taliban steps up a campaign of violence in the weeks leading up to the national elections on April 5. It also came on the heels of a surge in bombings and shootings against 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 US-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement.
President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid boasted later “our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it”.
The restaurant 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 stand-off.
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 dead.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements, citing the need to focus on protecting the hotel guests amid the chaos.
An Afghan journalist also was killed along with his wife and two children. It said the family’s youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Sardar Ahmad, 40, also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 to become the French news agency’s senior reporter in Kabul.
The attackers reached the hotel at 8.30pm, evading security checks by hiding small pistols and ammunition in their socks and the soles of their shoes, Mr Sediqqi said.
The attackers appeared to be about 18 years old and all were killed, Mr Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used.
Militants also killed three people in the southern province of Kandahar by throwing an explosives-packed bottle on the ground at a ceremony, a new tactic for the Taliban.
Those killed included the head of the provincial media centre and two policemen. Seven other people were wounded.