KABUL – A total of 21 people, including 13 foreigners, died in a Taliban suicide assault on a popular restaurant in Kabul, police said Saturday, with two British citizens and two Canadians among those confirmed dead.
Desperate customers tried to hide under tables as one attacker detonated his suicide vest at the fortified entrance to La Taverna du Liban and two other militants stormed inside and opened fire.
Among the dead were two British citizens, two Canadians, a senior International Monetary Fund representative from Lebanon, and the restaurant’s Lebanese owner, who reportedly died after he tried to fire back at the attackers.
Four United Nations’ staff were killed, though their nationalities was not confirmed.
“Our latest figure is 21 killed, including 13 foreigners and eight Afghans,” Kabul police Chief Mohammad Zahir said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility within an hour of the attack, part of a stepped-up campaign of violence against foreign and government interests to send a message that the militants are not going anywhere as the U.S.-led coalition winds down its combat mission at the end of the year. The bombing served as a reminder that although militant violence in the capital has dropped off in recent months, insurgents remain capable of carrying out attacks inside the most heavily guarded areas.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said the assault began with the suicide bomber detonating his explosives at the front door of the restaurant, located in an area housing several embassies, nongovernmental organizations and the homes and offices of Afghan officials. As chaos ensued, the two other attackers entered through the kitchen and began shooting. They were later killed by security guards, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi.
Four United Nations personnel were among those killed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. They were not identified.
Ban condemned the attack “in the strongest terms,” saying “such targeted attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable and are in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. condemns “this despicable act of terrorism in the strongest possible terms.” She said information about the attack was still coming in, but that all U.S. Embassy personnel were accounted for.
Deputy Afghan Interior Minister Ayoub Salangai said in a tweet that the dead included four women.
The restaurant, like most facilities that are frequented by foreign diplomats, aid workers, journalists and businessmen in the war-weary country, has no signs indicating its location and is heavily secured. It sits on a small side street just off a bumpy semi-paved road in a house with low ceilings and an enclosed patio but no windows.
Bags of dirt are piled up around it to act as blast walls, and guests must go through a series of steel air locks, where they are searched, before entering. The surrounding area is full of police and security guards to protect against insurgent attacks, which have increased in recent months around the country.
Police at the scene did not allow reporters near the restaurant, located in the diplomatic quarter of the central Wazir Akbar Khan area, as they rushed to help the wounded and ensure there were no more gunmen.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, which he said targeted foreign officials dining at what he described as a “hotel.”
“There was a suicide attack on a foreign hotel where special foreign invaders are coming for dinner. In this attack an explosive was used which was very strong and heavy casualties and massive destruction happened,” he said.
Zabihullah said the targets of the attack included “high-ranking German officials.” In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry said it was looking into the report. The Taliban frequently provide exaggerated casualty figures.
There have been a number of attacks in Kabul so far this month, including a suicide bicycle bombing of a bus carrying police that killed two people.
The last major attack near a foreign facility, a heavily fortified guest house in Kabul, took place on Oct. 13, when a suicide car bomber killed two passers-by. That facility, known as Green Village, was also attacked in 2012, when seven guards and civilians were killed.
Insurgents have frequently targeted foreign interests around the country and in Kabul. The Taliban have increased their attacks in recent months after foreign forces handed over control of security for the country to the Afghan Army and police. Foreign forces are scheduled to withdraw from the country altogether by the end of this year.