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KABUL — The luxury hotel was considered one of the safest spots in the Afghan capital. Yet four gunmen walked in, proceeded to the restaurant and pulled out pistols hidden in their shoes. They killed nine people, including an Agence France-Presse journalist, his wife, and two of their children, who were shot in the head.

The Taliban boasted that the bold assault Thursday night shows they can strike anywhere, and Afghan officials issued a string of conflicting statements as they scrambled to explain how the attackers penetrated the Serena Hotel’s tight security.

It was a major embarrassment to government security forces less than two weeks before the April 5 national elections, and follows an increase in bombings and shootings targeting foreigners in the capital, which had been relatively rare.

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A Swedish journalist was shot earlier this month and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.

The attack in the Serena was particularly brazen because it was considered one of the best-protected sites for civilians in Kabul.

Sheltered behind a nondescript wall, the hotel requires entrants to pass through a security room at the gate where they are patted down and go through a metal detector as bags are put through an X-ray machine and sometimes searched.

The attackers hid small pistols and ammunition in their shoes and socks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters, but he could not say how the weapons went undetected. The hotel security has been known in the past not always to act when the metal detector beeps.

Café Zarnegar was packed with foreigners as well as Afghans celebrating the eve of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The hotel is popular among foreign aid workers, journalists, contractors, and diplomats who often come for brunch or dinner.

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The dead included five Afghans, two Canadians, an American, and a Paraguayan. Six people were wounded, including a child, a foreigner, two police officers, a hotel guard, and an Afghan lawmaker.

A US official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that an American citizen was killed in the attack. The victim has not been identified.

Officials have changed their story several times since the attack began to unfold. They later attributed the confusion to the chaos and the need to protect the hotel guests.

What is known is that two of the gunmen went to the restaurant and killed seven victims by shooting them in the head. Two other victims were found in the halls, Sediqqi said, displaying photos of the small pistols and ammunition the attackers used and their shoes.

Police killed all four attackers, who appeared to be about 18 years old, after a three-hour standoff.

Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, a widely respected 40-year-old Afghan journalist with Agence France-Presse, the French news service. His wife and two of their children were also killed, and the agency said their 1-year-old son was badly wounded and hospitalized.