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Kabul hotel reopens after deadly attack but guests stay away

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The piano notes of Richard Clayderman’s “Romeo and Juliet” accompanied Taliban gunmen as they rode gold mirrored elevators to the upper floors of a luxury Kabul hotel in search of guests to kill.

Stopping on nearly every floor of the Intercontinental Hotel, the heavily armed militants went from room to room, blasting away electronic door locks and shooting terrified guests during the hours-long attack on January 20.

At least 25 people, including 15 foreigners, were killed. Nearly seven weeks on, AFP was allowed to inspect the still badly damaged hilltop hotel overlooking the Afghan capital after it partially reopened its doors to the wary public.

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Having repaired the ground floor, workmen ride up and down the landmark hotel’s plush elevators as they strip and rebuild the upper four floors that were also shot up, bombed and set alight in the raid.

The soothing piano music inside the lifts, which sales and marketing manager Rohullah Nawab said was also playing that night, provides a chilling contrast to the destruction in the hallways and rooms.

The smell of smoke permeates the upper floors where bullet-riddled mirrors, blackened walls, shattered door locks and burned carpets provide a grim reminder of the carnage caused during the 15-hour ordeal.

Clear plastic sheets are draped over furniture stacked up in some rooms as workmen paint walls, replace electrical wiring and install new windows and doors.

Nawab estimates it will take five months and around 40 million afghanis (nearly $600,000) to restore the government-owned hotel — which does not belong to the global InterContinental chain — to its former glory.

Repairing its reputation, however, will probably take much longer.

On the night of the attack 173 guests had checked into the 200-room hotel, Nawab said. Since then not a single room on the first floor — the only one undamaged in the attack — has been reserved in recent weeks since it reopened.

The ground-floor restaurant, where militants pretending to be guests launched the assault by opening fire on diners, has been repaired and every trace of the bloody incident erased.

But the buffet lunch — salads and silver dishes of hot food — had no takers when AFP reporters visited, and Nawab said only a handful of people had dared to eat there since the assault.

– Heavy discounts –
The hotel’s revenues have been devastated, plunging from more than one million afghanis a day to around 50,000 afghanis, Nawab said, with a couple of wedding parties and official functions providing succour.

But Nawab is confident the hotel will remain open. “It’s a historical hotel. The government will never close it,” he said.

To entice people back, the Intercontinental, which opened in the 1960s, has launched a publicity campaign on Afghan television talking up its history and offering discounts of up to 50 percent on food, rooms and events.

“It takes a lot of time to get back to business. It shocked the foreign community,” Nawab said.

Officials remain silent over how the attack was carried out. The interior ministry has submitted a report of its investigation to President Ashraf Ghani but there has been no public announcement.

Around a dozen hotel and security staff have been detained amid speculation the Taliban may have had insider help.

The deputy head of security told AFP last month that guards were ordered to wave through a car later revealed to be carrying militants and explosives ahead of the deadly assault.

Visitors to the hotel reported lax security before the attack — something that does not appear to have changed.

When AFP visited this week the privately-owned Kabul Balkh Safety & Security was still manning the vehicle checkpoints on the road leading up to the hotel, the only baggage scanner was still not working, and there were no armed guards inside the hotel.

Rohullah told AFP that the hotel was waiting for the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s spy agency, to give advice on security upgrades.

Memories of the attack are still fresh in the minds of employees who returned to work several weeks after the raid.

Two waiters who jumped from the fourth floor are still in hospital, said Nawab, who himself narrowly avoided being caught up in the shooting inside the restaurant.

“It’s difficult but what should we do?” Nawab said.

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24 Hours Across Africa

Ghana draws African-American tourists with ‘Year of Return

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US preacher Roxanne Caleb blinked away the tears as she emerged from a pitch-dark dungeon where African slaves were once held before being shipped across the Atlantic to America.

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m heartbroken,” she told AFP as she toured the Cape Coast slave fort on Ghana’s ocean shore.

“My mind still can’t wrap around the fact that a human being can treat another worse than a rat.”

Caleb is among the African-American visitors flocking to Ghana as it marks the “Year of Return” to remember the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in Virginia.

The West African nation is banking on the commemorations to give a major boost to the number of tourist arrivals as it encourages the descendants of slaves to “come home”.

Cape Coast Castle, 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the capital Accra, is a major magnet for those visiting

The white-washed fort lined with cannons was one of dozens of prisons studding the Atlantic coast where slaves were held before their journey to the New World.

A string of prominent African-Americans have headed to the site this year to mark the anniversary since the first slave landing in 1619.

Among them was a delegation of Congressional Black Caucus led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that toured last month.

– ‘Can’t forget history’ –

For those visiting it is an emotional rite of passage.

“This has been understanding my history and my roots where I came from,” Caleb said.

“I am very thankful I came here as part of the Year of Return.”

Sampson Nii Addy, a corrections officer with the Montgomery police department in Alabama, said he and his family had found the tour an “education”.

“I think every black person needs to come around to learn history; how people were treated,” the 52-year-old told AFP.

“We can’t forget history but we can always learn something from it.”

Ghana, one of the continent’s most stable democracies, has long pitched itself as a destination for African-Americans to explore their heritage and even settle permanently.

In 2009 President Barack Obama visited with his family and paid homage at the Cape Coast Castle.

The “Year of Return” has added fresh impetus and the country is hoping it will increase visitor numbers from 350,000 in 2018 to 500,000 this year, including 45,000 African-Americans.

Kojo Keelson has spent nine years guiding tour groups around the Cape Coast Castle and says 2019 has seen a surge in interest as Ghana looks to rake in tourism revenue of $925 million (830 million euros).

“It’s like a pilgrimage. This year we’ve a lot more African-Americans coming through than the previous year,” he told AFP.

“I’m urging all of them to come home and experience and reconnect to the motherland.”

– ‘Love to come again’ –

Akwasi Awua Ababio, the official coordinating “Year of Return” events, pointed to high hotel occupancy rates as he said “enthusiasm is very high and we’ve got huge numbers coming from the US and Caribbean”.

He insisted that beyond the major economic boost, Ghana was also looking to use the new connections it is forging to convince the descendants of slaves to resettle for good and help the country develop.

“Human resource is always an asset and we need to see how we can welcome them home to utilise their expertise and networks,” the director for diaspora affairs at the presidency said.

The African American Association of Ghana brings together those who have moved to West Africa and offers help to integrate them into their new surroundings.

President Gail Nikoi praised the “Year of Return” initiative by Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo and said the country was “setting the stage for future engagements and involvement of African-Americans and other Africans from the diaspora in the development of this country.”

But she said the authorities could still be doing more to help attract arrivals and convince them to stay.

“Dialogue and engagement is the first step,” she said.

While most of those visiting Cape Coast were not thinking about settling back permanently — they said the trip had opened their eyes to both their own history and what Ghana has to offer.

“It has broadened my horizons about how we came to be here and what our ancestors went through,” said William Shaw, 57, from Montgomery.

“I would love to come again. There is a lot more to see here in Ghana… at least once in a year I’d advise African-Americans to come back to their native land and learn about their history.”

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24 Hours Across Africa

Nigeria: Woman arrested over Outrageous Viral video of her abusing a child

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Police in Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos have arrested a woman filmed abusing a child and then locking him in a caged kennel with dogs.

It is not clear when the footage was shot, but it went viral on Twitter earlier this month.

In the video clip, a woman is seen beating a boy, stripped to his waist, with a belt. She then drags him into an empty kennel and locks it before walking away. Two dogs can be seen in other neighbouring kennels.

The video caused outrage on social media, where shocked users offered rewards to anyone that could track down the woman.

On Thursday, a police spokesperson, Dolapo Badmos, tweeted that the woman in the video had been arrested.

“The suspect is in custody and will be charged to court… The boy, who happens to be an orphan, has been rescued and kept in a shelter provided by Lagos state government,” she said.

Her tweet links to a video filmed by police showing the dog kennels where the boy was locked up:

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