KABUL, Afghanistan -- The four gunmen were swift as they entered the Kabul hotel, making their way to the restaurant where they pulled out small pistols and began shooting diners in the head, killing nine people, including two Canadians and an Afghan journalist, his wife and two children, officials said Friday.
The Afghan capital has been hit by several attacks, but authorities appeared stunned that the militants had managed to get through the tight security at the Serena hotel -- considered one of the safest places to stay in Kabul.
The shooting spree was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks as the Taliban and allied militants step up a campaign of violence in the weeks leading to April 5 national elections.
Among the victims was Sardar Ahmad, a widely respected 40-year-old an Afghan journalist who was killed along his wife and two children, French news agency Agence France Presse confirmed. It said the family's youngest son was undergoing emergency treatment after being badly wounded in the attack.
Ahmad also ran the Kabul Pressistan media company and joined AFP in 2003 to become the agency's senior reporter in Kabul. He covered all aspects of life, war and politics in his native Afghanistan, according to a statement tweeted by the news agency.
The attack in Kabul came on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings against foreigners in the Afghan capital, something that had been relatively rare. Earlier this month, a Swedish journalist was shot on the street and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.
The Taliban have threatened to use violence to disrupt next month's elections and the bloodshed shows they are capable of carrying that out. The presidential vote will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack, saying it shows that "our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it."
At the time of the attack, the hotel restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said most of the civilians were killed when two of the attackers walked into the restaurant and began shooting, while the others were shot to death as the gunmen made their way through the hotel. Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the cordoned off streets outside.
Sediqqi said the four 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 Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement that a woman from New Zealand was in the Serena at the time of the attack but was unharmed. Islamabad also said no Pakistani nationals were killed.
Afghan authorities have released a series of conflicting statements since the attack began to unfold on Thursday night, citing the need to focus on protecting the hotel guests and the chaos.
The attackers reached the hotel at 8:30 p.m., evading security checks by hiding small pistols and ammunition in the soles of their shoes, Sediqqi said.
Afghan authorities initially said only two security guards had been wounded and the assault began at 6 p.m. but later changed their account.
The attackers appeared to be about 18 years old and all were killed, Sediqqi said at a press conference, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and shoes in which they hid their weapons.
In other violence, an explosion struck a Nowruz ceremony on Friday, killing two policemen in the southern province of Kandahar, police said.
Police spokesman Zia Durani said militants threw an explosives-packed bottle that blew up when it landed on the ground, which he called a new tactic.
Durani earlier said three people were killed but later lowered the death toll to two and said the head of the provincial media center was seriously wounded.