Gunmen dressed in army uniforms who stormed Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel Saturday night battled Afghan Special Forces for 13 hours in an overnight siege that left 14 foreigners and four Afghans dead, officials and witnesses said on Sunday.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which saw more than 150 guests flee, with some shimmying down tied-together sheets from upper-floor windows and others rescued by Afghan forces.
Abdul Rahman Naseri, a guest who was at the hotel for a conference, was in the hall of the hotel when he saw four insurgents dressed in army uniforms.
“They were shouting in Pashto [language], ‘Don’t leave any of them alive, good or bad. Shoot and kill them all,’ one of them shouted,” Naseri said.
“I ran to my room on the second floor. I opened the window and tried to get out using a tree but the branch broke and I fell to the ground. I hurt my back and broke a leg.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said the siege ended on Sunday when the last gunman was shot dead.
Even after officials said the attack was over, sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard from the site.
It is unclear exactly how many gunmen were involved, though three attackers were killed in the siege.
Some 160 people were rescued after Afghan troops fought throughout the night to regain control of the building.
The raid was the latest in a long series of attacks which have underlined the city’s precarious situation and the ability of militants to mount high-profile operations aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.
As day broke on Sunday, thick clouds of black smoke could be seen pouring from the building. Several armored U.S. military vehicles with heavy machine guns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units.
Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had gotten into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen before going through the hotel, with many guests trapped in their rooms.
“When the sixth floor caught fire this morning, my roommate told me, either burn or escape,” said Mohammad Musa, who was hiding in his room on the top floor when he heard gunfire.
“I got a bed sheet and tied it to the balcony. I tried to come down but I was heavy and my arms were not strong enough. I fell down and injured my shoulder and leg.”
The raid came just days after a U.S. embassy warning of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid sent a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, which he said had been carried out by five fighters.
The attack, just days after a United Nations Security Council visit to Kabul to allow senior representatives of member states to assess the situation in Afghanistan, may lead to a further tightening of security in Kabul.
Large areas of the city center are already closed off behind high concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, but the ability of the attackers to get into a well-protected hotel frequented by both government officials and foreigners demonstrated how difficult it remains to prevent high-profile attacks.
Danish said a private company had taken over security of the hotel about three weeks ago.
The State Department said on Saturday it was monitoring the situation and was in contact with Afghan authorities to determine whether any U.S. citizens had been affected.
Captain Tom Gresback, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said they were also watching closely but it was not clear what role international forces took in suppressing the attack.
“Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are leading the response efforts. According to initial reports, no Resolute Support or [U.S. forces] members were injured in this incident,” he said in an emailed statement as the fighting continued.
Although Resolute Support says the Taliban has come under pressure after the United States increased assistance to Afghan security forces and stepped up airstrikes against insurgents, security remains precarious.
As pressure on the battlefield has increased, security officials have warned that the danger of attacks on high-profile targets in Kabul and other cities would increase.
After repeated attacks in Kabul, notably an incident last May in which a truck bomber killed at least 150 people outside the German embassy, security has been further tightened.