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Night-long siege of Kabul hotel leaves 30 dead

Updated January 22, 2018

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KABUL: A man being helped to escape through a balcony during the siege on Sunday.—Reuters
KABUL: A man being helped to escape through a balcony during the siege on Sunday.—Reuters

KABUL: Gunmen in army uniform, who stormed Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel late on Saturday and battled Afghan Special Forces through the night, killed more than 30 people and wounded many more, although the final toll might still be higher.

Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said on Sunday that 19 bodies had been taken to hospitals, with six identified as foreigners.

However, an Afghan security official said the death toll was over 30 and might climb higher. The dead included hotel staff and guests as well as security personnel who fought the attackers. All the five attackers were also killed, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danesh said.

Pakistan condemned the attack and expressed grief over the loss of precious lives.

A statement on the website of Foreign Ministry said: “The government and the people of Pakistan convey solidarity and support with the government and people of Afghanistan at this dastardly terrorist attack. We convey our deepest sympathies for those who have lost their loved ones.”

Separately, Foreign Office spokesperson Mohammad Faisal tweeted, “We reject the knee jerk allegations by some Afghan circles to point the finger at Pakistan for the terrorist attack on intercontinental hotel in Kabul. There is need for a credible investigation into the attack, including on reported security lapses”.

Pakistan rejects allegations by some Afghan circles that it is involved in the terrorist attack

“We reiterate our strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. In our view, cooperation among states is important for effectively combating and eliminating the scourge of terrorism,” the Pakistan foreign ministry said.

The raid was the latest in a series of attacks that have underlined the Afghan capital’s vulnerability and the ability of militants to mount high-profile operations aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.

More than 150 guests were able to flee as parts of the building caught fire, with some shimmying down sheets tied together and dropped from upper-floor windows and others rescued by Afghan forces.

Local airline Kam Air said around 40 of its pilots and air crew, many of whom are foreigners, were staying in the hotel and as many as 10 had been killed. Local media reported the dead included Venezuelans and Ukrainians.

The Taliban, who attacked the same hotel in 2011, claimed responsibility for the attack, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

A statement from the interior ministry put the blame on the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with the Taliban that is notorious for its attacks on urban targets.

Abdul Rahman Naseri, a guest who was at the hotel for a conference, was in the hall of the hotel when he saw four gunmen 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.”

Even after officials said the attack was over, sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard from the site.

Thick smoke

As day broke on Sunday, thick clouds of black smoke poured from the building, an imposing 1960s structure set on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in Kabul.

The Intercontinental is one of two main luxury hotels in the city and had been due to host an information technology conference on Sunday. More than 100 IT managers and engineers were on site when the attack took place, said Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry.

Danesh said a private company had taken over responsibility for security at the hotel three weeks ago and there would be an investigation into possible failings, just days after the US embassy warned of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul.

Several armoured US military vehicles with heavy machineguns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units as Special Forces manoeuvred around the site.

Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen before going through the hotel, with many guests trapped in their rooms.

The senior security official said that the attackers had moved directly from the first floor to the fourth and fifth floors, suggesting the attack had been carefully prepared, possibly with inside help.

“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.

“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.”

In separate incidents on Sunday, eight people were killed by a roadside bomb in the western province of Herat and 18 members of local militia forces were killed at a checkpoint in the northern province of Balkh.

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2018