KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO helicopters fired rockets before dawn Wednesday at Taliban gunmen who stormed one of Afghanistan's premier hotels, ending a brazen, nearly five-hour assault that left 19 people dead — including all eight attackers.
The strike against the Inter-Continental was one of the biggest and most complex to have occurred within Kabul and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.
It occurred less than a week after President Barack Obama announced the beginning of an American withdrawal and the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans in several areas, including most of Kabul province.
Militants who had managed to penetrate the hotel's security measures began the attack around 10 p.m. Tuesday, on the eve of a conference about the transfer of security responsibilities.
After hours of fighting, two NATO helicopters opened fire at about 3 a.m. on the roof of the five-story 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 insurgents.
A final explosion occurred a few hours later when one of the bombers who had been hiding in a room blew himself up long after ambulances had carried the dead and wounded from the hotel, which sits on a hill overlooking the mountain-rimmed capital.
Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security, said eight suicide attackers were involved and all had either blown themselves up or been killed by Afghan or coalition forces.
The 11 civilians killed included a judge from an unnamed province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mashal said. He said no foreigners were killed, but two foreigners were among 14 people wounded in the attack. He did not disclose their nationalities.
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."
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 injured and was holed up in a room, blew himself up, Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi said.
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.'"
The Taliban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks.
The attackers were heavily armed with machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, 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.
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."
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.