THE CANADIAN PRESS — Taliban fighters armed with explosive vests, anti-aircraft weapons and grenade launchers raided an international hotel in Kabul on Tuesday that left 19 people dead on the eve of a conference to discuss plans for Afghan forces to take over security when international troops leave by the end of 2014.
Kabul police chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said Wednesday that 11 Afghan civilians — mostly hotel workers — died when heavily armed Taliban fighters stormed the Intercontinental and fought security forces for more than four hours.
Salangi said six to eight suicide attackers, who were able to penetrate the hotel's tight security, attacked at around 10 p.m. Tuesday on the eve of the conference.
NATO helicopters killed three gunmen on the roof and Afghan security forces rushed in to end the standoff.
Hours later, however, one more explosion rocked the Intercontinental hotel. A lone suicide bomber, who had been wounded in the attack, blew himself up in one of the rooms, said Salangi.
A Taliban spokesman quickly claimed responsibility for the rare nighttime attack in the capital.
Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security, said eight suicide attackers were involved and all had either blown themselves up or been killed by Afghan or coalition forces.
The 11 civilians killed included a judge from an unnamed province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mashal said. He said no foreigners were killed, but two foreigners were among 14 people wounded in the attack. He did not disclose their nationalities.
Coming on the eve of the transition conference, the attack threw a harsh light on U.S. President Barack Obama's recently announced plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in a year and to end the American combat role by the end of 2014. Kabul has been designated as one of seven cities and provinces scheduled to start shifting from NATO to Afghan control in July.
Initially, Afghan security forces took the lead in the hotel battle, shutting off electrical power to the neighbourhood around the hilltop building and rushing at least 200 troops to the scene. A team of Afghan commandos moved into the hotel, where 60 to 70 guests — including provincial officials from around the country and foreign visitors — hid in their rooms as machine-guns echoed.
At around 3 a.m., two NATO helicopters opened fire on the roof of the hotel where militants had taken up positions. U.S. army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopters killed three gunmen and Afghan security forces clearing the hotel worked their way up to the roof and engaged the remaining insurgents.
As the helicopters attacked and Afghan security forces moved in, there were four massive explosions. Officials at the scene said the blasts occurred when security forces either fired on suicide bombers or they blew themselves up.
After the gunmen were killed, the hotel lights that had been blacked out during the attack came back on. Afghan security vehicles and ambulances were removing the dead and wounded from the area.
Hours later, however, the last of the suicide bombers, who had been holed up in a room, blew himself up, the finale of the deadly night of violence.
Guest rooms riddled by bullets
"We were locked in a room. Everybody was shooting and firing," said Abdul Zahir Faizada, head of the local council in Herat province in western Afghanistan. Like many others staying at the hotel, Faizada came to Kabul for the transition conference.
An Afghan soldier aims his gun as he guards the area surrounding the Intercontinental hotel. An Afghan soldier aims his gun as he guards the area surrounding the Intercontinental hotel. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace."
"Our room was hit by several bullets," Wahedi said. "We spent the whole night in our room."
The Taliban fighters made their way to the hotel rooftop where they launched rocket-propelled grenades and ragged bursts of automatic weapons fire at Afghan forces. The gunfire echoed against nearby mountains and red tracer rounds slashed across the sky.
After four hours of sporadic fighting, Black Hawk helicopters staged successive air assaults, circling around the hotel and firing down with machine-guns. British army Maj. Tim James, a NATO spokesman, said three or four suicide bombers fired at the choppers and detonated their explosives. Massive concussive blasts flashed orange and hurtled shrapnel in all directions.
The helicopters pounded the flaming rooftop with rockets, ending the melee. Ambulances and fire crews then raced up the hill to retrieve the dead and wounded. An AP reporter saw three bodies in the back of an Afghan police truck and two more in an ambulance.
After the shooting stopped, the lights that had been blacked out in Kabul's Bagh-e-Bala district came back on and shaken guests and employees stumbled down the hotel driveway.
Reconciliation efforts shaken
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to the AP, and later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers had killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.
"One of our fighters called on a mobile phone and said: 'We have gotten onto all the hotel floors and the attack is going according to the plan. We have killed and wounded 50 foreign and local enemies. We are in the corridors of the hotel now taking guests out of their rooms — mostly foreigners. We broke down the doors and took them out one by one."'
The Taliban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks. The statement did not disclose the number of attackers, and said only one suicide bomber had died.
Before the attack began, officials from the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taliban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.
"The fact that we are discussing reconciliation in great detail is success and progress, but challenges remain and we are reminded of that on an almost daily basis by violence," Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference. "The important thing is that we act and that we act urgently and try to do what we can to put an end to violence."
The Intercontinental opened in the late 1960s and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It was once part of an international chain, but when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.