Taliban commandos stage siege at Kabul Intercontinental hotel


By Farhad Peikar in Kabul, and Rob Crilly in Islamabad

29 Jun 2011

The first attacker blew himself up at the hotel entrance, blasting a way through the tight security around one of Kabul’s leading hotels.

 Behind him, five more gunmen, some wearing suicide jackets and others armed with rocket-propelled grenades, swarmed into the lobby of the Intercontinental and began seeking out guests, floor by floor, room by room.

At least 10 people were reported killed during a rare night-time raid carried out by the Afghan Taliban, in a well-planned operation that appeared to be modelled on the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Truckloads of police arrived shortly after shooting started at about 10pm, passing wedding guests who fled the scene in panic.

Over five hours later, Nato said two of its helicopters had killed three attackers on the roof, ending the siege.

The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility in a series of phone calls to news organisations. A spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the gunmen were targeting foreigners and described chilling scenes inside the hotel.

“They are ramming down doors because the guests have locked themselves in their rooms,” he said in a statement. “They are going after the guests.” Tight security at the Intercontinental makes it a favoured haunt of foreign journalists, aid workers and government officials.

Guests have to pass through three checkpoints to reach the entrance, prompting speculation that the attackers were dressed in police uniforms or had help from hotel staff.

On Tuesday night a delegation of provincial governors was also believed to be staying at the hotel for a conference.

As well as the wedding reception, another function was being held at the poolside and many of the guests were just sitting down to dinner when the attack began.

Sayed Hussain was inside the hotel compound when the attack started.

“I saw five to six men in civilian clothing armed with rifles who started shooting when they entered,” he said. “I lay down on the ground and soon after the police arrived.” Officers set up road blocks around the hillside hotel and cut off electricity, plunging it into darkness.

The attack was timed to coincide with Tuesday’s visit to Kabul by Marc Grossman, the US special envoy to the region, who met President Karzai and took part in two major summit talks being held almost simultaneously in the capital.

The city is abuzz with reports of talks between American officials and Taliban representatives and the prospect of ending 10 years of war.

However, the Taliban has so far shown little inclination to end attacks on foreign forces.

Last week, President Barack Obama also unveiled his plans to withdraw more than 30,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer – prompting speculation that the Taliban would step up its attacks in a show of strength.

Tuesday night’s assault is similar to the 2008 commando attack on Mumbai when 10 Pakistani-trained terrorist roamed the city, searching for Westerners or Jews at three five-star hotels and a café. Some 166 people were dead by the time the killing ended after three days.

Bilal Sarwary, a BBC journalist tweeting from the scene, said the assault marked a new departure in Kabul.

“This was a well planned attack. Terrorists change of tactic, attack during night, surprised everyone,” he wrote on the microblogging site.

Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since Osama bin Laden was shot dead in a US raid in Pakistan last month.

The start of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive has also seen a surge in attacks.

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

And late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students.

Hotels have also been a frequent target for militants in the city.

Six people died when the Serena hotel was bombed in 2008.

Earlier this year a suicide bomber killed three people and wounded several others in an attack on the Safi Landmark hotel, which had been targeted barely a year earlier.

Tuesday night’s attack suggests the Taliban is now intent on bringing chaos back to Afghanistan’s capital.

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