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Police search Kabul hotel for victims after attack

Image: Afghan soldiers walk towards the Intercontinental hotel
Afghan soldiers walk towards the Inter-Continental hotel at the end of a military operation against Taliban militants that stormed the hotel in Kabul.Pedro Ugarte / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Afghan police sifted through one of Kabul's landmark hotels room by room on Wednesday for any more casualties or security threats after an overnight assault by at least six Taliban suicide bombers killed up to 10 Afghan civilians.

The attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, stormed the heavily guarded Inter-Continental hotel before NATO helicopters killed the remaining insurgents in a final rooftop battle that ended a raid lasting more than five hours.

The number of gunmen who attacked the hotel, frequented by Afghan officials and foreign visitors, was unclear but an Interior Ministry spokesman said there were six. Media reports put the number of civilians killed inside the hotel as high as 10.

"The police are still searching room by room to see if there are any casualties or any threats," Kabul police chief Ayoub Salangi told reporters.

The attack began when a suicide vehicle blew up at the front gate of the hotel, NBC News reported. Then, six attackers reportedly entered the restaurant and exploded bombs.

The attackers were heavily armed with machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and grenade launchers, the Afghan officials said.

Some of the attackers carried tape recorders playing Taliban war songs and shot at anyone they saw. Guests jumped from second and third floors to escape, the receptionist told Reuters, asking not to be identified.

Afghan police rushed to the scene and firefights broke out. They battled for hours with gunmen who took up positions on the roof.

The Associated Press reported two back-to-back explosions hours later as helicopters hovered overhead.

NATO helicopters "engaged three individuals on the roof,'' coalition spokesman Major Tim James said. "The indications are that the three individuals on the roof have been killed."

U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, another coalition spokesman, said Afghan security forces clearing the hotel worked their way up to the roof and also engaged the remaining insurgents.

The insurgents on the roof were wearing suicide vests which detonated either right before or as a result of being shot by the NATO helicopters, NBC News reported.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said there were six attackers. He said two were killed by hotel guards at the beginning of the attack and four others either blew themselves up or were killed in the airstrike or by Afghan security forces.

After the gunmen were killed, the hotel lights, blacked out during the attack, came back on. Afghan security vehicles and ambulances were removing the dead and wounded from the area.

U.S. officials told NBC News that they are still investigating whether any of the victims are U.S. military or intelligence officers.

Police told NBC News that no known Westerners were in the hotel at the time.

Some Afghan provincial officials were among the 60 to 70 guests staying at the hotel.

Abdul Zahir Faizada, who is head of the local council in Herat province in western Afghanistan, was staying at the hotel. He planned to attend a conference in Kabul on Wednesday to discuss plans for Afghan security forces to take the lead for securing an increasing number of areas of the country between now and 2014 when international forces are expected to move out of combat roles. Afghans across the country were in the city to attend.

"We were locked in a room. Everybody was shooting and firing," said Faizada who was staying at the hotel with the mayor of Herat city and other officials from the province. "I heard a lot of shooting."

Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace."

"Our room was hit by several bullets," Wahedi said. "We spent the whole night in our room."

There was also wedding party in the hotel at the time, police said.

Jawid, a guest at the hotel, said he jumped out a one-story window to flee the shooting.

"I was running with my family," he said. "There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to The Associated Press.

Mujahid later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.

"One of our fighters called on a mobile phone and said: 'We have gotten onto all the hotel floors and the attack is going according to the plan. We have killed and wounded 50 foreign and local enemies. We are in the corridors of the hotel now taking guests out of their rooms — mostly foreigners. We broke down the doors and took them out one by one.'"

The Taliban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks. The statement did not disclose the number of attackers, but only said one suicide bomber had died.

Before the attack began, officials from the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taliban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.
"The fact that we are discussing reconciliation in great detail is success and progress, but challenges remain and we are reminded of that on an almost daily basis by violence," Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference. "The important thing is that we act and that we act urgently and try to do what we can to put an end to violence."

The Inter-Continental — known widely as the "Inter-Con" — was once part of an international chain. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.

The hotel, used by Western journalists during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, has been targeted before. On Nov. 23, 2003, a rocket exploded nearby, shattering windows but causing no casualties.

Twenty-two rockets hit the Inter-Con between 1992 and 1996, when factional fighting convulsed Kabul under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. All the windows were broken, water mains were damaged and the outside structure pockmarked. Some, but not all, of the damage was repaired during Taliban rule.

Other hotels in the capital have also been targeted. In January 2008, militants stormed the capital's most popular luxury hotel, the Serena, hunting down Westerners who cowered in a gym during a coordinated assault that killed eight people. An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Philippine woman were among the dead.

Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's annual spring offensive.

On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.

Late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing three people.