Kabul: Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a Kabul hotel popular with foreigners and Afghan officials, sparking a five-hour assault that left several casualties and part of the building in flames.
Ten people, all Afghan civilians, were killed in the attack, police said on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately as a result of this terrorist attack, 10 of our countrymen, all of them civilians, lost their lives,” said Kabul police chief Ayub Salangi. “Three policemen have been injured”.
He said that many of those killed were people who worked in the hotel.
NATO helicopters were called in to help crush the brazen attack on the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel, which officials said ended in the early hours of Wednesday with six would-be suicide bombers killed by security forces.
The gunmen entered the hotel as guests were eating dinner, evading what are normally rigorous security procedures. Panicked guests were told to stay in their rooms. The hotel was hosting an Afghan security meeting at the time.
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 State Department indicated that all US diplomatic staff were safe and confirmed US 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 Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, which once again demonstrates the terrorists’ complete disregard for human life,” it said in a written 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.
Explosions were heard during the late-night assault and a part of the building was seen ablaze as security forces battled the attackers.
Among those staying at the luxury 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.
“The operation has just ended, all of them (the attackers) have been killed,” Interior Ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi said. “We believe at this stage it was six suicide bombers.”
Ambulances were being sent to the hotel to ferry away any dead and wounded, but he declined to provide any figures, saying only that the number of casualties was still being calculated.
Kabul criminal investigations chief Mohammad Zahir said that one suicide attacker had blown himself up and “a number” of police had been wounded.
During the assault, 10 to 15 armoured vehicles carrying Afghan National Army commandos were seen entering the hotel compound.
Kabul police chief Mohammad Ayoub Salangi earlier said two of the attackers had been killed by security forces.
“One enemy was killed outside the hotel. Another enemy was shot and his body is lying there with his (undetonated) suicide vest on his chest,” he said. “The three top floors are now being cleared.”
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.
The Taliban frequently exaggerate their claims.
Reporters heard five separate explosions as the attack unfolded and said the hotel was in darkness after power in the area was apparently cut.
Witness Sayed Hussain said he was inside the hotel compound when it started.
“I saw five to six men in civilian clothing armed with rifles who started shooting when they entered,” he said, speaking close to the scene. “I lay down on the ground and soon after the police arrived.”
He added that police and the attackers then exchanged fire for about 10 to 15 minutes before he heard a loud explosion.
Another man, who did not want to give his name, said he had been at the hotel intending to have dinner with friends when he heard gunshots and lay down in a muddy ditch to hide.
An Afghan guard was then shot nearby and fell on top of him, he said.
The Intercontinental attack comes weeks before foreign forces are expected to start withdrawals from Afghanistan, although security in the capital Kabul is already under the control of Afghan security forces.
Some 10,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan this year, President Barack Obama announced last week, ahead of the planned end of foreign combat operations at the end of 2014.
However, some experts question the ability of Afghan security forces to withstand a bloody Taliban insurgency which has run for nearly 10 years.
Nine people were killed earlier this month in the heart of Kabul when three attackers, at least one of whom was in army uniform, armed with suicide vests and machine guns stormed a police station.