KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban insurgents, some of them dressed in traditional Afghan tunics and playing loud religious music over their cellphones, used the distraction of a suicide blast at a checkpoint to storm the lobby of the Kabul Inter-Continental hotel late Tuesday, where they opened fire on hotel guests in a six-hour rampage certain to shake local confidence in Afghanistan’s security forces.
When security forces with the help of helicopters from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force finally killed the last of the attackers at about 3:30 a.m. today, six hours after they’d invaded the hotel, at least 10 civilians were dead, Kabul Police Chief Ayoub Salagngi told reporters.
Police said eight Taliban died – seven who perished during the fighting, including some who blew up themselves with suicide vests after they’d been wounded, and the bomber, whose suicide at the checkpoint signaled the beginning of the attack.
It was without doubt the most spectacular Taliban action inside Kabul this year and was likely to unsettle a city that had already seen two other deadly security breaches in recent months, one at the country’s Defense Ministry in April and another at the premier military hospital. By the time the shooting had stopped, NATO helicopters had fired rockets at the hotel’s roof and flames were licking from an entire floor of the hotel’s upper stories.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed credit for the attack and said its target had been a meeting of about 300 international and Afghan security specialists who were gathering for a reception ahead of a series of meetings today.
But a hotel worker who asked not to be identified said the attackers had struck too soon, if the reception had been their goal. The worker, who said he was at the front desk when the attack began, said only about 30 or 40 of the expected guests had arrived for the event when the shooting started at about 9:30 p.m.
The worker said he saw two hotel guests – one from Turkey, the other from an Arab country the worker did not identify – shot by the insurgents. He did not know their conditions and said he feared others might have become victims as the attackers moved out of the lobby to other floors of the hotel.
The worker said he saw perhaps as many as three of the insurgents when they entered the hotel. He said they were dressed in traditional “kamiz shalwar,” the long tunic over baggy pants that is the traditional Afghan dress for men, and were playing loud religious music on their cellphones when they began their attack. Each was clutching what appeared to be a canned energy drink in his hand.
Police said other attackers wore police uniforms. One police officer who declined to give his name said that six of the attackers eventually made it to the roof, where they fought it out with pursuing Afghan police until the two NATO helicopters, summoned to help, opened fire with rockets.
It was unknown whether any of the hotel’s guests had been killed. Ambulances were still carrying away the wounded as light dawned on the scene.
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.
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.”
How the insurgents skirted the hotel’s security was not immediately clear. But the front desk worker said he believed they had approached the hotel from the rear instead of trying to skirt the layers of security that greet arrivals to the hotel’s main entrance.
The attack began when the suicide bomber exploded at the lone security checkpoint in the rear. The others rushed in in the confusion.