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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Nine people were slain execution-style while they dined at Kabul's most upscale hotel on Thursday, government officials and sources told NBC News.
The victims included four women and two children. Four foreigners, including two Canadians, were among those killed at the Serena Hotel.
A three-hour battle involving Afghan special forces ended with the gunmen dead, officials said.
The bloodbath began in the hotel’s restaurant at 9 p.m. local time (12:30 p.m. ET) as guests celebrated Persian New Year.
"Don't kill us, we're Afghan"
The shooters, who are believed to have smuggled pistols into the heavily guarded hotel by hiding them in their socks, took a table at the restaurant. They ordered apple juice before launching the attack, a waiter in the Silk Route Restaurant said.
“Don’t kill us, we’re Afghan,” pleaded one man at a nearby table, according to a witness. The gunmen proceeded to kill the man and two of the children at his table, the witness said.
The gunmen shot most of the victims in the head execution-style, according to witnesses and government officials.
Among the dead is a senior AFP reporter in Kabul, Sardar Ahmad. Ahmad, 40, was killed with his wife and two of his three children, the news service said in a statement. APF said one of their staff photographers identified the four bodies at a city hospital, adding the family’s youngest son was “undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack."
President Hamid Karzai issued a condolence message after news of the journalist's death emerged.
"The killing of Ahmad, his wife and two children is the biggest crime, and a painful tragedy," he said.
The Ministry of the Interior said the four slain foreigners killed were from Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan and India, but the New Zealand, Pakistani and Indian foreign ministries denied any of their citizens were among the dead. Canada confirmed that two Canadians were killed, The Associated Press reported.
No Americans were injured or killed, according to the U.S. Embassy.
The Serena Hotel is popular with Afghan politicians, visiting dignitaries, contractors and journalists. It is generally considered one of the safest places to eat and stay in Kabul.
An NBC News source who was in the restaurant minutes after the attack said he saw six of the victims’ bodies on the ground with bullet holes in their head and faces. Blood was splattered on cream-colored and wood-paneled walls, the source added.
Terrified guests and staff members fled the restaurant to hide in their rooms or safe rooms, and hotel workers wandered into the restaurant even as gun smoke filled the air.
"It was hard to breathe. People started putting wet napkins on their faces," one witness hiding in a smoke-filled safe room packed with guests and Afghan members of parliament told Reuters.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was targeting a delegation of high-ranking foreign officials and Afghans.
But the country's interior ministry suggested the hotel shared some of the blame for the attack.
"The Serena Hotel’s security team is responsible for this incident. We have previously offered our security and services to the hotel management," spokesman Sidiq Siddiqi said. “They rejected our offer, and assured us they have all of the security personnel and expertise needed to protect their five-star hotel.”
A spokesman for ISAF, the NATO-led security mission in the country, said the Afghans had not requested any help in responding to the situation.
ISAF's commander Gen. Joseph F. Dunford condemned the attack.
"I express my deepest sympathies to the victims and families of those wounded and killed in last night's attack on the Serena Hotel," he said in a statement on Friday. "This attack shows a complete disregard for human life."
It was the latest in a string of attacks by the Taliban aimed at disrupting presidential elections scheduled for April 5.
Jamieson Lesko and F. Brinley Bruton reported from London. The Associated Press contributed to this report.