Taliban attack on UN house leads to panic and heroics
11 dead in Kabul after residential hotel is stormed
KABUL, Afghanistan - There was no way out for Miles Robertson, working in Afghanistan as a United Nations elections adviser. He was awakened by gunfire and feared he and his wife would be taken hostage.
First, the lanky Australian started to step onto the balcony of the guest house where he and dozens of other UN staffers were staying, but shots drove him back inside. Finally, as the room filled with smoke and he realized he and his wife might not survive, they placed moist towels over their faces, climbed out a window, and scrambled over the roof until they could jump to safety.
Taliban militants wearing suicide vests and armed with guns and grenades had attacked the three-story residential hotel at dawn yesterday in what their spokesman said was a bid to derail the Nov. 7 runoff election.
After a two-hour battle, 11 people were dead - including five UN staff members and the three attackers. One of the dead was American, the US Embassy said.
The visibly shaken chief of the United Nations’ mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told reporters the attack “will not deter the UN from continuing all its work’’ in the country.
“We will not be deterred from this noble mission,’’ UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in New York.
But the attacks underscored the risks facing UN and Afghan officials in organizing a runoff election following the fraud-marred first-round vote Aug. 20, and the massive challenge for the US-led military force in curbing the determined Taliban insurgency.
The mayhem also showed how vulnerable foreigners are in Afghanistan, even in Kabul, which has been relatively secure after eight years of war.
The attack began shortly before 6 a.m. when three gunmen wearing green police uniforms broke into the guest house, home to the largest concentration of UN staffers working on the election. The crackle of gunfire echoed across the city and explosions set fire to the building, filling the lobby and the upper floors with thick smoke.
“I was praying when suddenly I heard loud gunfire, then return fire,’’ said Agha Mohammad Osman, who lives nearby. “We ran inside our homes to remain safe. The gunfire hit the door and then the attackers got inside the guest house. Foreign guests inside were crying out for help, but we could not help them.’’
As gunfire and grenade blasts rocked the building, Robertson quickly bolted the door and hid his wife in the closet, hoping the Taliban would believe the room was vacant.
But fire broke out in the room next door, and smoke billowed into their hiding place.
“We realized that there was no way for us to go out under the stairs or any way for us to come outside,’’ Robertson said. “I opened the window and stepped out to the landing out front, and had a volley of shots fired at me.’’
He ducked back into the bedroom, but it had filled with smoke. He worried about dying of smoke inhalation.
“I went into the bathroom, wet a towel, and kept it over the face of my wife and myself as we crouched beside the window,’’ he said.
Outside, “there was a lot of indistinguishable yelling and calling,’’ Robertson said.
He and his wife climbed out a window as the fire raged and ran over the roofs of neighboring houses to a friend’s home nearby.
Meanwhile, John Christopher Turner of Kansas City, Mo., who works for a trucking company on contract to the US military, grabbed an AK-47 rifle and scampered through the guest house’s upper floors, pounding on doors to alert fellow residents.
Turner said he assembled about 25 terrified guests and, along with a Nepalese man, poured gunfire at the attackers while leading the group into the laundry room. They locked themselves inside as UN guards returned fire, he said.
“I carry an AK-47 and I kept firing it to keep the attackers away from the group I was guarding,’’ Turner said, describing how he shot from the entrance of the laundry room. The group later jumped over a back wall to take refuge in a house behind the guest house, he said.
Turner called his father in suburban Kansas City after the attack, 82-year-old Lionel Turner told The Associated Press.
“He said he was burned a little, but that he wasn’t hurt,’’ the father said. “He’s got more guts than a Missouri mule.’’
It was not possible to reach others who had been at the guest house to verify Turner’s account. UN staff were evacuated to Dubai for counseling, the UN said. Turner did not have a weapon when he spoke with an AP reporter.
About a mile away from the guest house, one rocket struck the “outer limit’’ of the presidential palace but caused no casualties, presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said. Two more rockets slammed into the grounds of the expensive Serena Hotel, a favorite of foreigners.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks as “an inhuman act’’ and called on the army and police to strengthen security around international facilities.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility in a telephone call to the AP, saying three militants carried out the assault. The Interior Ministry said all were killed.