x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Taliban say Kabul hotel attack aimed at Nato-Afghan security talks

Nine civilians killed in attack designed to target foreign advisers and provincial governors and bring tension to Kabul on day of Nato-Afghan security-transition conference.

Smoke rises from the Intercontinental hotel, Kabul, yesterday as a Nato helicopter flies overhead. Omar Sobhani / Reuters
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental hotel, Kabul, yesterday as a Nato helicopter flies overhead. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

KABUL // A devastating Taliban attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul on Tuesday night has sharply underlined the challenges foreign troops face in handing security over to Afghan forces in the coming months.

At least nine civilians, including one foreign national, and two Afghan police, were killed after nine Taliban militants stormed the heavily-fortified InterContinental Hotel in the heart of Kabul.

The evening assault by the Taliban fighters was one of the insurgency's most coordinated and high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital in recent years.

The assault, timed to thwart a government-sponsored conference on the Nato-Afghan security transition slated for yesterday morning, according to a Taliban spokesmen, was a symbolic strike at the heart of the Nato mission in Afghanistan.

"We had three main goals in attacking the hotel," the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said after the attack. "We wanted to target as many foreign advisers as we could, as many provincial governors as we could, and bring tension to Kabul on the same day of the security-transition conference."

A number of provincial-level officials were staying at the hotel for the security conference.

Nato forces will begin pulling soldiers out next month, marking the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan. All foreign forces are expected to have left by the end of 2014.

The Taliban announced in May the start of its violent spring and summer offensive against Afghan and foreign troops, vowing to attack military installations as well as "places of gathering".

But if the militant assault on the InterContinental was a litmus test for how Afghan forces might handle security in a post-Nato Afghanistan, the Afghan army and police failed miserably, locals and analysts said.

After the initial attack, where Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers breached hotel security and stormed the premises, a gun and artillery battle between the attackers and Afghan and Nato forces lasted well past sunrise in the middle-class neighbourhood of west Kabul where the Intercontinental is located.

Several large explosions rocked the area, sending passersby fleeing for cover.

At midnight, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) fired by insurgents into the city left red tracers arcing across the midnight sky.

The Taliban said its fighters were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, sub-machine guns and suicide vests.

"They could fight all night with the weapons we gave them," Mr Mujahid said.

Dozens of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, arriving in armoured-personal carriers, stormed the hotel at 2am to evacuate the hotel's 60 to 70 guests.

Some of the guests were covered in dirt from having scaled down walls or nearby hills to escape the onslaught.

Afghan police manning a makeshift checkpoint several hundred metres from the hotel were visibly nervous, charging vehicles with guns pointed and pulling Afghans from their cars.

The fighting only ended when Nato helicopter gunships were called in to provide air support for Afghan forces at about 3am.

The gunships fired missiles at three insurgents who had taken positions on the hotel roof, setting the complex ablaze.

Even after Nato and the Afghan interior ministry announced the battle was over at 5am, gunshots could be heard in the area surrounding the hotel.

One suicide bomber managed to hide inside the complex until Afghan forces discovered him at about 8am, both the Taliban and Afghan government said.

The bomber then detonated his explosives, killing two Afghan policemen and one Spanish citizen who was a guest at the hotel.

It was unclear how many of the assailants had successfully detonated their suicide vests, security officials said.

"I thought I was going to die, that I would never see my family again," said Faiz Ahmad, an American of Afghan and Indian descent who came to Kabul to begin research for his PhD, and was a guest at the hotel. "I knew when the power went out at the hotel, that something was wrong. Then I heard the gunshots," he said.

"I don't feel safe here. I will never feel safe here."

Violence is on the rise in Afghanistan as the Taliban-led insurgency gains strength against the weakening Afghan government.

The United Nations said 2010 was the country's deadliest year since the US-led invasion in 2001. Civilian casualties were up 15 per cent from 2009-2010, with 2,777 conflict-related civilian deaths in 2010, according to the UN.

Some of the guests were visibly shaken as they exited the hotel in the early morning light.

Some cried, others made desperate phone calls.

"I saw everything, everything I never imagined I would see in my lifetime," said Chetin Torgay, a Turkish engineer with the Afghan national air carrier, Ariana Airlines,who was in Afghanistan for work.