Taliban guerrillas armed with automatic weapons and explosives stormed the Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul last night, triggering a five-hour gun battle with Afghan troops and police that left 12 people dead.
Eight militants entered the hotel compound at about 10 p.m. and began fighting with guards, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in a phone interview today in the Afghan capital. Security forces were sent to the hotel and two policemen were killed, he said. The city’s police chief, Ayub Salangi, said 10 civilians, most of them hotel staff, died in the siege.
Among guests at the hotel were governors and police chiefs of eight provinces who had gathered in Kabul to discuss plans for Afghan forces to take a greater role in providing security as U.S.-led NATO troops wind down their combat role by the end of 2014. None were hurt in the raid.
A “big group” of Taliban gunmen attacked the hotel, said Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban movement, who claimed that 50 people were killed or wounded, among them foreigners. The attack was timed for a meeting of U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials with the intent of killing them, he said.
Sediqqi said a meeting of diplomats from the three countries in Kabul yesterday was not held at the hotel. No U.S. diplomats were hurt, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in an e-mailed statement.
The attack began as the Taliban gunmen fanned out inside the low-rise hotel in search of foreigners, Sediqqi said. Explosions and gunfire could be heard from behind the police cordon 200 meters away.
One of the militants wearing a suicide vest blew himself up in the hotel compound, the spokesman said, while four others were killed by Afghan forces at different locations in the building. NATO helicopters attacked the remaining three guerrillas as they fought from the hotel roof, killing them.
Around midnight, police had sealed off the hotel, which opened in 1969 and has been targeted several times in the 31 years of Afghan warfare that followed the invasion of Soviet forces. The hotel, built on a hilltop overlooking the city and set amid residential housing, hasn’t been part of the Intercontinental chain since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
An explosion could be heard shortly after midnight coming from the direction of the hotel, which wasn’t visible from behind the cordon of police and their vehicles. Afghan National Police officers shouted at civilians to clear the main road leading to the white, chevron-shaped building, which sprawls out over grounds that include an outdoor pool and tennis courts.
Around 1 a.m. the first unit of the Afghan National Army arrived and entered the hotel to engage with the Taliban. Forty-five minutes later, a second unit arrived. By about 2:35 a.m. helicopters were seen overhead.
A U.S. delegation led by Ambassador Marc Grossman, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had left Kabul earlier and was en route to Washington during the attack, Nuland said.
The U.S. government had no immediate information about private American citizens, she said.
U.S. President Barack Obama last week announced a reduction of 33,000 soldiers in Afghanistan by September 2012. Even with the withdrawals, the U.S. will have roughly 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. A coalition of 48 other nations, which are making plans to pull back as well, has more than 40,000 personnel in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was briefed on the attack as he returned to Washington from an event in Iowa.
“The United States strongly condemns the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, which once again demonstrates the terrorists’ complete disregard for human life,” Nuland said.