KABUL - Afghanistan on Sunday said an attack on a Kabul hotel that left nine civilians dead, including an AFP journalist, was planned “outside the country” in a veiled reference to Pakistan.
The National Security Council (NSC), which is chaired by President Hamid Karzai, also alleged that a Pakistani diplomat was seen scoping out the corridors of the Serena hotel ahead of the Thursday night raid.
Pakistan was the main supporter of the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Afghan officials have long voiced suspicions about connections between the hardline movement and Islamabad’s powerful intelligence services.
The NSC said the attack on the hotel, which was carried out by four teenage gunmen and claimed by the Taliban, was in fact the work of “foreign intelligence services” - a phrase normally meant to mean neighbouring Pakistan.
“Witness testimony and preliminary information analysis shows that this terrorist attack was directly executed or carried out by foreign intelligence services outside the country,” the council said in a statement.
“Another information of the NDS (National Directorate of Security) shows that earlier when one Pakistani diplomat entered the Kabul-Serena hotel to use its sport club, he filmed the corridors of the hotel which the hotel staff raised objections to,” it added.
The NDS is Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency.
The victims of Thursday’s attack included AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of their three children, along with another Afghan and four foreigners - two Canadians, an American and a Paraguayan.
The couple’s youngest son, two-year-old Abozar, survived with bullet wounds to the head, chest and leg and remained in intensive care on Sunday.
Afghanistan made a similar allegation following a deadly restaurant bombing in Kabul in January that killed 21 people including 13 foreigners.
The latest accusation could damage relations with Pakistan which is battling its own homegrown Taliban insurgency and is seen as crucial to encouraging the Afghan Taliban to open talks.
Many Afghan Taliban leaders seek shelter in Pakistan, and Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency is often accused of maintaining ties to the militants to ensure future influence in Afghanistan after US-led NATO troops withdraw.
Meanwhile, hundreds of mourners turned out in pouring rain Sunday to lay to rest Sardar Ahmad, AFP’s senior reporter in Afghanistan, together with his wife and two of their children who were among the victims of the hotel attack.
After the funeral procession made its way through the capital, they were buried side by side at a cemetery on the outskirts of Kabul, as those who came to pay their respects wept under umbrellas.
Ahmad, 40, his wife Homaira, six-year-old daughter Nilofar and five-year-old son Omar were among nine civilians to lose their lives in the assault.
The coffins were carried from a mortuary to the family home for prayers Sunday morning, where Ahmad’s brothers broke down in tears and female family members wailed in distress.
The funeral procession made its way through the capital amid tight security, with authorities cordoning off roads to ensure safe passage.
Large portraits decorated in flowers accompanied the coffins, carried by Afghan soldiers in dress uniform on their journey. Afghan national flags covered the two adult coffins, while the children’s were draped in green.
ELECTION OBSERVERS PULL FOREIGN STAFF OUT OF AFGHANISTAN
Reuters adds: Two major foreign election observer and support missions have pulled staff out of Afghanistan after a Taliban attack on a Kabul hotel, observers said on Sunday, in a move which could undermine confidence in the outcome of the crucial vote.
The April 5 vote is less than two weeks away and could mark the country’s first democratic transfer of power. Many fear a repeat of the widespread fraud that discredited the poll in 2009 when about 20 percent of votes were thrown out.
“It’s really bad news,” said Jandad Spingar, director at the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the largest Afghan monitoring group.
“Having international observers in the election is really, really important... (to) give legitimacy to the process.”
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) said it had pulled its observers from the country, while a senior European diplomat said observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had been pulled out to Turkey.
The European Union’s international monitoring mission will be the only major one to remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban on Thursday attacked the heavily fortified Serena Hotel in central Kabul, where most foreign observers were staying.
“We have withdrawn our staff that were staying at the Serena, and we are assessing our election monitoring activities,” said Kathy Gest, public affairs director at NDI.
NDI observer Luis Maria Duarte was among the nine people killed and many of his colleagues were in the building when four gunmen with pistols sprayed diners at the hotel’s restaurant with bullets.
Officially, the OSCE said it had yet to make a final call on whether it would cancel its international election support mission, despite sources saying foreign staff had already left for Turkey.
“Our security experts are currently assessing the security situation in Kabul for our team, who were at the Serena the night of the attack,” spokesman Thomas Rymer said.
While violence and insecurity across Afghanistan was always going to confine foreign observers mostly to compounds in major cities, their presence and expertise was to serve as a vital form of reassurance to their Afghan colleagues.
The Serena Hotel had been attacked before, but has since been increasingly fortified and considered safe enough to accommodate foreign observers during the election.
It was also one of few places foreign officials were still permitted to go after the Taliban attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant killing 21 people in January.
The EU said its overall plans for its international monitoring mission had not changed. However, several of its staff were flown out of the country after the attack, according to an observer on the same flight.
“We are safe at the EU compound and for us there is no reason to change anything in our plans,” said chief EU observer Thijs Bernam.
President Hamid Karzai is barred from a third term, but his brothers are publicly backing former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul.
Critics say the campaign reflects a desire by Karzai and his family to remain in power, but the president says he will remain impartial and is looking forward to retirement.