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 the 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 (IMF) 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 told AFP.
“Five women were among the dead and about five people were injured.”
The long-established Taverna has been a regular dining spot for foreign diplomats, consultants, aid workers and Afghans, and was busy with customers on Friday, the weekly holiday in Afghanistan.
Like many restaurants in Kabul, it ran strict security checks with diners patted down by armed guards and passing through at least two steel doors before gaining entry.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the massacre saying that “such targeted attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable and are in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law”.
The assault was quickly claimed by Taliban militants fighting against the Afghan government and US-led foreign forces in the country.
A militant spokesman said the attack was to avenge a US airstrike in Parwan province on Tuesday night that Afghan President Hamid Karzai said killed seven children and one woman.
“These invading forces have launched a brutal bombardment on civilians... and they have martyred and wounded 30 civilians. This was a revenge attack and we did it well, and we will continue to do so,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
The insurgents regularly make exaggerated and incorrect claims about death tolls after attacks.
On Saturday morning, the restaurant’s battered sign was still in place, hanging over the ruined remains of the entrance door. Several badly damaged cars also remained at the scene.
“I was sitting with my friends in the kitchen when an explosion happened and smoke filled the kitchen,” kebab cook Abdul Majid told AFP while being treated for leg fractures at a nearby hospital.
“A man came inside shouting and he started shooting. One of my colleagues was shot and fell down. I ran to the roof and threw myself to the neighboring property.”
Elite security commandos rushed to seal off the small streets around the restaurant as sporadic gunfire erupted for a short time after the blast.
“We condemn, of course, the despicable act of terrorism in the strongest possible terms,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has said it foiled several plots in the capital involving truck bombs and suicide gunmen over the past year.
NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting the Taliban, but negotiations have stalled on a security accord that would allow some U.S. and NATO troops to stay after 2014.
Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces face a difficult year in 2014 as insurgents attempt to disrupt elections on April 5 that will choose a successor to Karzai, and as NATO’s combat mission winds down by December.