EIGHT heavily armed Taliban militants stormed a top Kabul hotel, sparking a ferocious battle involving Afghan commandos and a NATO helicopter gunship that ended hours later with at least 10 civilians dead.
Officials said all eight of the attackers were killed after they raided the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel, whose faded grandeur frequently pays host to Afghan officials and foreigners.
Red tracer bullets arced through the night sky around the hotel, part of which erupted in flames.
The state-owned 1960s hotel, which is not part of the global InterContinental 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 hotel workers, were killed in the raid and three police officers were wounded.
“Eight armed terrorists attacked the Intercontinental hotel at 11pm last night… the operation ended at 3am Wednesday morning after the eight terrorists were killed,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
Interior ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi said the operation had ended after five hours of violence with the deaths of the 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,” Siddiqi said.
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 said.
“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 last night.
“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 Intercontinental is less deluxe than the Serena, which is the favoured choice of foreign officials and business people visiting the Afghan capital.
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 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 armoured 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.
The Taliban frequently exaggerate their claims.
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 are due to leave Afghanistan this year, 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 that has run for nearly 10 years.