NATO helicopters end 5-hour siege against armed suicide bombers
KABUL (AFP) ― Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a top Kabul hotel, sparking a five-hour battle with Afghan commandos backed by a NATO helicopter in an assault that left at least 10 people dead Wednesday.
Red tracer bullets arced through the night sky around the hilltop Inter-Continental Hotel, whose faded grandeur frequently pays host to Afghan officials and foreigners. Part of the building was in flames.
The state-owned 1960s hotel, which is not part of the global Inter-Continental chain, was hosting delegates attending an Afghan security conference and a large wedding party when the insurgents struck at dinner-time.
Kabul police chief Ayub Salangi said that 10 people, mostly workers at the hotel, were killed in the raid.
“Unfortunately as a result of this terrorist attack, 10 of our countrymen, all of them civilians lost their lives,” he said, adding that three police were also injured.
Afghan soldiers walk toward the Inter-Continental Hotel during a military operation against Taliban militants that stormed the hotel in Kabul on Wednesday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the operation had ended after five hours of violence with the deaths of what he believed were six suicide bombers.
But AFP journalists at the scene could hear sporadic gunfire continue after the spokesman’s announcement.
“They’re still searching carefully and we’re very scared in case there are more casualties,” Sidiqqi told AFP.
Among those staying at the hotel were Afghan government officials from across the country who were in Kabul for a conference on the handover of power from foreign to Afghan security forces.
The process starts next month.
Panicked guests were told to stay in their rooms after the attackers, who officials said were suspected of having suicide vests, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, somehow evaded rigorous security checks.
Major Tim James, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said ISAF deployed one helicopter at the request of Afghan authorities. ISAF corrected its earlier account that two choppers were sent.
“It flew over the hotel, circled it a few times.
They were able to clearly identify a number of insurgents who were armed and wearing suicide vests and then they engaged the individuals with small-arms fire,” James told AFP.
“We’ve had reports that there were a number of explosions caused either by the insurgents detonating themselves or the engagement by the helicopter causing that (suicide vests) to explode,” he said.
A member of staff named Ezatullah said he hid in a room on one of the hotel’s uppermost floors, on the fifth storey, when the attack started late Tuesday.
“There was first gunfire, and then two blasts. It continued and got worse. The room I was hiding in filled with smoke,” he said.
“I had to leave. As I got out I saw trails of blood, and then the police came and took me out of the building.”
Security at most high-end hotels in Kabul was significantly stepped up after an attack on the city centre’s Serena Hotel in 2008 left seven people dead.
The Inter-Continental is less deluxe than the Serena, which is the favored choice of foreign officials and business people visiting the Afghan capital.
The State Department indicated that all U.S. diplomatic staff were safe and confirmed U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman and all the members of his visiting delegation had safely departed Afghanistan and were en route to Washington.
“The United States strongly condemns the attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, which once again demonstrates the terrorists’ complete disregard for human life,” it said in a statement.
“We extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of this attack,” it said, adding there was no information on any American casualties.
During the assault, AFP reporters saw 10-15 armored vehicles carrying Afghan National Army commandos entering the hotel compound.
The reporters heard five separate explosions as the attack unfolded and said the hotel was in darkness after power in the area was apparently cut.
Ambulances rushed to the site to ferry away any casualties.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the militant Islamist group was behind the attack.
He claimed that the militants had taken over the hotel, killing 50 guests including foreigners and officials, and had taken a further 300 hostage.