Four Taliban gunmen killed nine people in an attack on one of the most heavily guarded hotels in the Afghan capital, authorities said Friday.

The restaurant of the luxury Hotel Serena was packed with people around 9:00 p.m. Thursday when the teenage assailants walked in and started shooting.

Many of the diners were at the Serena to celebrate the eve of Nawroz, the ancient Persian new year, which is observed throughout Southwest Asia.

Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, an Afghan journalist working at AFP's Kabul bureau, who was slain along with his wife and two of the couple's three children.

Also killed were citizens of New Zealand, Canada, Pakistan and India, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi told reporters Friday.

The Paraguayan government said that one of its former diplomats, Luis Maria Duarte, was killed in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

Duarte was in Kabul as part of a team from the U.S. National Democratic Institute sent to observe Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election, Paraguay's foreign ministry said.

Security forces responded to the Taliban attack and all four assailants were killed in the course of a 2 1/2-hour gunbattle, Afghan officials said.

Recent months have seen an increase in violence targeting Western NGOs and institutions in Kabul as well as spots frequented by foreigners.

Swedish Radio correspondent Nils Horner was gunned down last week while interviewing passersby on the streets of the Afghan capital.

Twenty-one people were killed in mid-January in an attack on a Kabul eatery popular with Westerners. EFE