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Kabul escape: U.N. workers scramble over roofs

U.N. staffers who survived an attack on  a guest house by Taliban militants wearing suicide vests describe a scene of flying bullets, explosions and close escapes.
Image: An injured man is carried by police
An injured man is carried by police following attack at Bekhtar guesthouse in Kabul, where five U.N. staff were killed.Romeo Gacad / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

There was no way out for Miles Robertson, working in Afghanistan as a U.N. 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 U.N. staffers were staying, but shots drove him back inside. Finally, the room filling with smoke and fearing he and his wife would 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 Wednesday 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 U.N. staff members and the three attackers. One of the dead was American, the U.S. Embassy said.

'We will not be deterred'
The visibly shaken chief of the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told reporters the attack "will not deter the U.N. from continuing all its work" in the country.

"We will not be deterred from this noble mission," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York.

But the attacks underscored the risks facing U.N. and Afghan officials in organizing a runoff election following the fraud-marred first-round vote Aug. 20, and the massive challenge for the U.S.-led military force in curbing the determined Taliban insurgency.

They 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 U.N. 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.

Fire broke out in the room next door, and smoke billowed into their hiding place.

'A volley of shots'
"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 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 "Chris" Turner of Kansas City, Mo., who works for a trucking company on contract to the U.S. military, said he grabbed an AK-47 rife and scampered through the guest house's upper floors, pounding on doors to alert his fellow residents.

Turner said he assembled about 25 terrified guests and along with a Nepalese man poured gunfire at the attackers as they led the group into the laundry room. They locked themselves inside as U.N. 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 staying at the guest house to verify Turner's account. U.N. staff were evacuated to Dubai for counseling, the U.N. 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, favored by many foreigners.

One failed to explode but filled the hotel lobby with smoke, forcing guests and employees to flee to the basement, according to British freelance journalist Kate Holt, who was staying in the hotel.

'Inhuman act'
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks as "an inhuman act" and called on the army and police to strengthen security around all international institutions.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility in a telephone call to the AP, saying three militants with suicide vests, grenades and machine guns carried out the guest house assault. The Interior Ministry said there were three attackers and all were killed.

The attack followed a warning last week by the Taliban, which threatened anyone working on the runoff election between Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

"This is our first attack," Mujahid said.

U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards said five U.N. staff were killed and nine other U.N. employees were wounded.

Afghan police and U.N. officials said 11 people in all were killed, including the U.N. staff, three attackers, two security guards and an Afghan civilian.

The dead included the brother-in-law of one of Afghanistan's most powerful governors, Gul Agha Sherzai. The man was killed by a stray bullet as he watched the gunfight from a nearby house, according to provincial spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai.

Edwards said the U.N. would have to evaluate "what this means for our work in Afghanistan."

"This has clearly been a very serious incident for us," Edwards said. "We've not had an incident like this in the past. ... We obviously will have to adjust our security in light of this."

An internal U.N. memo ordered restrictions on movement for the rest of the week and said U.N. departments would be reviewing its list of critical and nonessential personnel, suggesting some people may be moved out of the country for their own safety.

The Aug. 19, 2003, truck bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, prompted the U.N. to pull out of Iraq for several years.

Afghans are to vote in a second-round election after U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes from the Aug. 20 ballot, determining widespread fraud. That pushed Karzai's totals below the 50 percent threshold needed for a first-round victory in the 36-candidate field.

Dozens of people were killed in Taliban attacks during the August balloting, helping drive down turnout.

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