Police scoured one of Kabul's landmark hotels room-by-room on Wednesday after an overnight assault by suicide bombers killed at least 10 people.
Armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, the eight attackers stormed the heavily guarded Inter-Continental hotel, frequented by Westerners and VIPs.
Afghan security forces entered the building and engaged the attackers, some of whom blew themselves up. A NATO helicopter then killed the remaining insurgents in a final rooftop battle that ended a five-hour standoff.
After several explosions, attackers entered the hotel late on Tuesday and made their way to the ballroom, a hotel receptionist said.
Some 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.
A lone suicide bomber, who had been injured in the attack, later blew himself up in one of the rooms, officials said.
"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.
Some foreign hotel guests were driven away in diplomatic vehicles while others waited on a street outside the hotel as the sun rose over the Afghan capital early Wednesday.
The attack on a five-story hotel raised doubt about the ability of Afghan security forces to take charge of securing the nation from foreign combat forces.
Salangi said the attackers, who were able to penetrate the hotel's tight security, attacked at around 10 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. ET) Tuesday on the eve of a conference about transferring responsibility for security across the nation from foreign combat troops to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
Salangi said most of the 10 victims were workers and cooks employed at the hotel. He provided no further details, but said none of the conference attendees staying at the hotel were harmed.
"There were no casualties among the guests — either foreign or Afghan," he said. "No high-ranking government officials were killed."
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace" in Afghanistan.
"Our room was hit by several bullets," said Wahedi, who is attending the conference elsewhere in the capital. "We spent the whole night in our room."
At around 3 a.m. local time (6:30 p.m. ET), two NATO helicopters opened fire on the roof of the hotel where militants had taken up positions.
U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopters killed three gunmen and Afghan security forces clearing the hotel worked their way up to the roof and engaged the remaining insurgents.
As the helicopters attacked and Afghan security forces moved in, there were four massive explosions. Officials at the scene said the blasts occurred when security forces either fired on suicide bombers or they blew themselves up.
After the gunmen were killed, the hotel lights that had been blacked out during the attack came back on.
Afghan security vehicles and ambulances were removing the dead and wounded from the area. Hours later, however, the last of the suicide bombers, who had been holed up in a room, blew himself up, the finale of the deadly night of violence.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the rare nighttime attack in the capital — an apparent attempt to show that they remain potent despite heavy pressure from coalition and Afghan security forces.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah 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," he said.
The Taliban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks.
The attackers were heavily armed with machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, hand grenades and grenade launchers, the Afghan officials said. Afghan police rushed to the scene and firefights broke out.
"We were locked in a room. Everybody was shooting and firing," said Abdul Zahir Faizada, head of the local council in Herat province in western Afghanistan, who was in town to attend the conference. "I heard a lot of shooting."
A few hours into the clashes, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived at the hotel, situated on a hill overlooking the capital.
Guests inside the hotel said they heard gunfire echoing throughout the heavily guarded building.
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."
The attack occurred nearly a week after President Barack Obama announced he was withdrawing 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and would end the American combat role by the end of 2014.
Before the attack began on Tuesday, 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" — opened in the late 1960s, and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and was once part of an international chain. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.
It was used by Western journalists during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
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.
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.
Other hotels in the capital have also been targeted.
In January 2008, militants stormed Kabul'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.
A suicide car bomber in December 2009, struck near the home of a former Afghan vice president and a hotel frequented by Westerners, killing eight people and wounding nearly 40 in a neighborhood considered one of Kabul's safest.
And in February 2010, insurgents struck two residential hotels in the heart of Kabul, killing 20 people including seven Indians, a French filmmaker and an Italian diplomat.