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Taliban Say They Will Attack Restaurants

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JASON STRAZIUSO | January 15, 2008 11:39 PM EST | AP

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban said Tuesday that its suicide bombers would attack restaurants where Westerners eat in Kabul, an ominous new threat that forced American and European workers to restrict outings in the Afghan capital.

The country's intelligence chief linked Monday's deadly attack on the Serena Hotel _ a well-guarded, high-profile property in Kabul frequented by Westerners _ to a Pakistani militant. Afghan officials arrested four people, and said they included one of the three attackers, who was disguised in a police uniform for the assault.

The death toll in the bombing and shooting attack on the hotel rose to eight. An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Filipina who died of her wounds Tuesday were among those killed.

"We will target all these restaurants in Kabul where foreigners are eating," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press by telephone. "We have jihadists in Kabul right now and soon we will carry out more attacks against military personnel and foreigners."

Taliban spokesmen often boast that militants plan to step up attacks. Suicide bombings have increased in the last two years, and the hotel attack was the first against a facility favored by Westerners.

Security companies that protect international workers in Afghanistan restricted Westerners' movements Tuesday, placing restaurants and stores frequented by foreigners off-limits for some.

Kabul has about a half dozen restaurants popular with Westerners. The establishments _ run by ex-pats with themed menus such as French or Mexican _ do not allow Afghans entry because they serve alcohol, which is illegal for Muslims here. The restaurants sit behind nondescript walls and do little advertising, relying on word-of-mouth to bring in customers.

Some Westerners said they would continue to eat out. Christoph Klawitter, the head of a German logistics company, said he dined out two to three times a week, including at the Serena, before the attack.

"I will still go out but not as often as before, maybe, and the venue now is more important," he said. "The Serena was pretty secure, and even there they got in. So I don't know. The more security, the more likely it is I might go there."

The Taliban have targeted aid workers and civilian contractors with kidnappings and killings. But the Islamic militants have typically focused attacks on Western and Afghan officials or security personnel, not civilians.

If there are more attacks on Western establishments, it will likely restrict Westerners' freedom of movement even further, and eventually could force aid agencies from the country, the way attacks in Iraq did.

"This is a new kind of target for the Taliban," Barney Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University, wrote on his blog. "Foreigners going to restaurants in Kabul ... sometimes joke that they feel like targets. Up to now, however, they have not been."

Referring to the attack on the Serena, Rubin added: "I imagine it will not be the last" such attack.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council issued separate statements condemning the hotel attack and called for redoubled efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

"The attack will not diminish the commitment of the international community to Afghanistan," Ban said.

The Serena attack was a grim start to 2008 after record violence last year, possibly showing that militants could be refining their strategy to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Western-backed campaign to stabilize Afghanistan.

Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, said police found a video made by two of the attackers in a home in Kabul, where they arrested two men. Police also arrested a man they said was one of the attackers, while a fourth man _ believed to have driven the attackers to the hotel _ was arrested in eastern Afghanistan while trying to flee to Pakistan.

Saleh said three militants stormed the hotel just after 6 p.m., hunting down Westerners who hid in the gym. A guard shot and killed one attacker at the gate to the hotel parking lot, which triggered his suicide vest.

A second attacker blew himself up near the entrance to the hotel lobby, and the third attacker made it inside the hotel and shot his way through the lobby and toward the gym, Saleh said. The third attacker wore a police uniform and an explosive vest, he said.

More than 30 U.S. soldiers in a half-dozen Humvees rushed to the scene, and security personnel from the nearby U.S. Embassy ran through the hotel in search of Americans.

Thor Hesla, 45, of Atlanta, was among the dead, friends and his company said Tuesday. Hesla worked for BearingPoint Management & Technology Consultants, which had a contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help Afghanistan rebuild, a company spokesman said.

Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, was in her hotel room when the attack began. She said a hotel employee led her to the basement but there was little protection until U.S. troops arrived.

The attack "certainly is a demonstration of intent by the Taliban to make their presence felt, and it also counters in a lot of ways this growing talk that they're responsible actors and let's include them in the (peace negotiations) process," said Ahmed.

Saleh said the attack was masterminded by Mullah Abdullah, a close ally of Pakistani militant leader Siraj Haqqani. Haqqani is thought to be based in Miran Shah, the main town in Pakistan's lawless tribal region of North Waziristan and the U.S. military has a $200,000 bounty out on him. Saleh said he did not known whether Abdullah is Afghan or Pakistani.

Saleh displayed a picture taken from the hotel's security cameras showing the gunman disguised in a police uniform inside the hotel lobby.

"The third person, after killing a number of the guests, maybe he changed his mind for some reason, he didn't detonate himself," Saleh said. "He changed his clothes and later when security forces searched the premises, he was arrested."

Authorities raided a house in Kabul early Tuesday where the alleged attackers had spent the night before the attack. Police found a video showing two of the assailants, identified as Farouq and Salahuddin, saying they were ready to die.

"I commit this suicide attack for Allah," the attacker named Farouq said on the video. He was the one believed to have blown himself up during the attack.

___

Associated Press writers Noor Khan in Kandahar and Amir Shah and Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul contributed to this report.