James Lamont in New Delhi, Matthew Green in Islamabad and Fazel Reshad in Kabul – FT.com June 29, 2011
At least 10 Afghan civilians were killed when militants attacked one of Kabul’s best known hotels on Tuesday night in a brazen strike on one of the highest profile targets in the Afghan capital.
The heavily guarded InterContinental Hotel has in the past hosted United Nations and European Union missions, and is frequented by international visitors to Afghanistan.
In a battle lasting several hours, explosions rocked the hilltop hotel and militants exchanged fire with Nato helicopters. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, the hotel was finally secured.
The attack involved at least seven militants, according to a spokesman for Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. It was the worst attack in the Afghan capital for months, and was launched on the eve of a conference at the hotel addressing the transition of civil and military responsibilities from foreign forces to Afghan authorities.
The strike also came on the same day that US, Pakistani and Afghan officials had met in Kabul to discuss the prospects for striking a political settlement with insurgents to end a war entering its tenth year.
The last significant attack on a major Kabul hotel was in January 2008, when Taliban gunmen killed six people in a commando-style raid on the five-star Serena hotel.
The Associated Press reported the Kabul interior ministry as saying that the bombers who attacked the InterContinental hotel either blew themselves up or were killed.
Hashmatullah, a member of the hotel staff, told the Financial Times from inside the six-storey building that the shooting had started at about 10pm, followed by a loud explosion. A power cut blanketed the scene in darkness, adding to the confusion as scores of members of the security forces surrounded the building.
One guest named Jawid said he jumped from a first-floor window to flee the shooting. “I was running with my family,” he told the AP. “There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests.”
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said suicide bombers had entered the hotel after killing the guards.
“One of the suicide attackers told us on the phone that they are in the lobby and chasing guests into their rooms by smashing the doors,” Mr Mujahid told the FT by e-mail.
Insurgents have generally launched attacks during the day in Kabul, often during rush-hour to cause maximum casualties. The nocturnal attack will raise fears the militants are testing new tactics to tighten their psychological grip on the city.
In the most recent assault in the capital, militants dressed as members of the security forces attacked a police checkpoint near the presidential palace on June 18, killing nine people.
The violence has underlined the capacity of insurgents to spread fear in urban areas ahead of a planned transition of seven towns and provinces to Afghan control in July, part of a phased handover that will see foreign fighting forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
Insurgents have launched sporadic suicide bombings in Kabul over the past year and stepped up the pace of operations in provinces around the city.
At least 25 people were killed at the weekend when a suicide car bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into a clinic in the province of Logar, east of the capital, levelling the building and leaving victims trapped in the rubble.
In spite of US claims to have arrested the Taliban’s momentum, last month was the deadliest of the war for civilians, with 368 killed, according to UN figures. Insurgent suicide and roadside bombings account for more than 80 per cent of the deaths.