A United Nations worker told today how he and his wife cheated death in the Taliban attack on a Kabul guest house.
Australian Miles Robertson, who was working in Afghanistan as a UN elections adviser, was awakened by gunfire early yesterday and feared he and his wife would be taken hostage.
He said he started to step on to the balcony of the guest house where he and dozens of other UN employees were staying, but gunshots drove him back inside.
Finally, with the room filling with smoke and fearing they would not survive, the couple placed moist towels over their faces, climbed out of 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-storey residential hotel at dawn in what their spokesman said was a bid to derail the November 7 run-off election.
After a two-hour battle, 11 people were dead - including five UN staff members and the three attackers. One of the dead was American, the US embassy said.
Chief of the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said the attack "will not deter the UN from continuing all its work" in the country.
"We will not be deterred from this noble mission," UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in New York.
But the attacks underscored the risks facing UN and Afghan officials in organising a run-off election following the fraud-marred first-round vote on August 20, and the massive challenge for the US-led military force in curbing the determined Taliban uprising.
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 6am when three gunmen wearing green police uniforms broke into the guest house, home to the largest concentration of UN 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, Mr Robertson quickly bolted the door and hid his wife in the closet, hoping the Taliban would believe the room was empty.
Fire broke out in the room next door, and smoke billowed into their hiding place.
"We realised that there was no way for us to go out under the stairs or any way for us to come outside," Mr 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 into the 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", Mr Robertson said.
He and his wife climbed out of a window as the fire raged and ran over the roofs of neighbouring houses to a friend's home nearby.
John Christopher "Chris" Turner of Kansas City, who works for a haulage company on contract to the US military, said he grabbed an AK-47 rifle and scampered through the guest house's upper floors, pounding on doors to alert his fellow residents.
Mr Turner said he assembled about 25 terrified guests and, along with a Nepalese man, fired at the attackers as they led the group into the laundry room. They locked themselves inside as UN 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," Mr 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.