Death toll unknown from attack on luxury Afghan hotel

McClatchy NewspapersJune 28, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan security forces waged a fierce battle with Taliban insurgents early Wednesday inside the luxury Kabul Intercontinental hotel, one of two hotels in the capital that cater to large groups of international visitors.

At one point, helicopters from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force fired rockets at the hotel's roof, where at least two insurgents had taken up positions. ISAF said the insurgents had been killed, and the Afghan Interior Ministry also said all the Taliban attackers had been killed.

But it was unclear that the siege had ended. Afghan forces were reported to be moving floor by floor through the 20-story hotel, and explosions could still be heard by onlookers outside the hotel. The hotel itself was burning fiercely.

It was unknown whether any of the hotel's guests had been killed or wounded in the mayhem and how many Americans might have been staying at the hotel. Mohammed Zahir, the director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police department, said at least six officers had been wounded.

The rare nighttime assault was likely to increase anxiety in the Afghan capital over the ability of the Afghan police and army to take control of security responsibilities, a transition that is scheduled to occur next month.

The Taliban hadn't launched an attack on a major hotel in the capital in more than a year, but it has executed a string of brazen assaults in the capital that have shaken Afghan confidence in the security forces. In May, a suicide bomber dressed in a uniform killed at least six at the country's main military hospital. A month earlier, a suicide attacker killed three people inside the Defense Ministry.

The Taliban assailants at the Intercontinental also were wearing military uniforms when they stormed into the hotel through a read door at about 10 p.m., Zahir said. At that hour, the hotel was almost certainly filled with milling guests and diners.

Hours into the siege, Zahir acknowledged that Afghan forces were having difficulty re-establishing control.

"The insurgents are resisting," he said. "The situation is not clear."

At least one of the insurgents had triggered his explosives-laden suicide vest, Zahir said. They also fired rockets at the nearby home of Marshal Mohammad Fahim Qaseem, the country's first vice president, he added.

A Taliban spokesman said that "up to 50 national and international enemy" had been killed, but Taliban claims frequently are wildly exaggerated and there was no independent confirmation of that number.

Tolo TV, an Afghan station, said that more than 10 people had been killed or wounded.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the assault, which police said began about 10 p.m.

Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said in a statement that the attackers were equipped with explosive vests, small and heavy weapons and hand grenades. He described the fighting as fierce.

Later, he issued his statement that as many as 50 people had been killed. "The operation is going as planned," he said.

Mujahid said the attack took place as about 300 national and international officials were meeting at the hotel. Police said they had no comment.

News reports indicated that some guests fled as the attack began.

The Associated Press quoted one guest it identified as Jawid as saying that he'd jumped from a window on the second floor to flee the shooting. "I was running with my family," the news service quoted him as saying. "There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests."

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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