KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban fighters armed with explosive vests, anti-aircraft weapons and grenade launchers raided an international hotel in Kabul on Tuesday and killed seven people on the eve of a conference to discuss plans for Afghan forces to take over security when international troops leave by the end of 2014.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said guards at the Inter-Continental hotel killed two insurgents during the assault, which began about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and ended about 3 a.m. Wednesday. Four other insurgents either blew themselves up or were killed on the roof of the hotel by NATO helicopter airstrikes.
A Taliban spokesman quickly claimed responsibility for the rare nighttime attack in the capital.
Coming on the eve of the transition conference, the attack threw a harsh light on President Barack Obama's recently announced plan to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in a year and to end the American combat role by the end of 2014. Kabul has been designated as one of seven cities and provinces scheduled to start shifting from NATO to Afghan control in July.
Initially, Afghan security forces took the lead in the hotel battle, shutting off electrical power to the neighborhood around the hilltop building and rushing at least 200 troops to the scene. A team of Afghan commandos moved into the hotel, where 60 to 70 guests — including provincial officials from around the country and foreign visitors — hid in their rooms as machine guns echoed. The insurgents made their last stand on the hotel rooftop, engulfing the top floor in flames and detonating bomb vests as Black Hawk helicopters fired at them with machine guns and rockets.
"We were locked in a room. Everybody was shooting and firing," said Abdul Zahir Faizada, head of the local council in Herat province in western Afghanistan. Like many others staying at the hotel, Faizada came to Kabul for the transition conference.
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace."
"Our room was hit by several bullets," Wahedi said. "We spent the whole night in our room."
Kabul deputy police chief Daoud Amin said seven people died in the attack and eight other people — two policemen and six civilians — were wounded. The attackers were not included in that death toll.
The Taliban fighters made their way to the hotel rooftop where they launched rocket-propelled grenades and ragged bursts of automatic weapons fire at Afghan forces. The gunfire echoed against nearby mountains and red tracer rounds slashed across the sky.
After four hours of sporadic fighting, Black Hawk helicopters staged successive air assaults, circling around the hotel and firing down with machine guns. British army Maj. Tim James, a NATO spokesman, said three or four suicide bombers fired at the choppers and detonated their explosives. Massive concussive blasts flashed orange and hurtled shrapnel in all directions.
The helicopters pounded the flaming rooftop with rockets, ending the melee. Ambulances and fire crews then raced up the hill to retrieve the dead and wounded. An AP reporter saw three bodies in the back of an Afghan police truck and two more in an ambulance.
After the shooting stopped, the lights that had been blacked out in Kabul's Bagh-e-Bala district came back on and shaken guests and employees stumbled down the hotel driveway.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to the AP, and later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers had killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.
"One of our fighters called on a mobile phone and said: 'We have gotten onto all the hotel floors and the attack is going according to the plan. We have killed and wounded 50 foreign and local enemies. We are in the corridors of the hotel now taking guests out of their rooms — mostly foreigners. We broke down the doors and took them out one by one.'"
The Taliban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks. The statement did not disclose the number of attackers, and said only one suicide bomber had died.
Before the attack began, officials from the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taliban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.
"The fact that we are discussing reconciliation in great detail is success and progress, but challenges remain and we are reminded of that on an almost daily basis by violence," Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference. "The important thing is that we act and that we act urgently and try to do what we can to put an end to violence."
The Inter-Continental opened in the late 1960s and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It was once part of an international chain, but when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.
It was used by Western journalists during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
On Nov. 23, 2003, a rocket exploded nearby, shattering windows but causing no casualties.
Twenty-two rockets hit the Inter-Con between 1992 and 1996, when factional fighting convulsed Kabul under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. All the windows were broken, water mains were damaged and the outside structure pockmarked. Some, but not all, of the damage was repaired during Taliban rule.
Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's annual spring offensive.
On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.
Late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing three people.
Other hotels in the capital have also been targeted.
In January 2008, militants stormed Kabul's most popular luxury hotel, the Serena, hunting down Westerners who cowered in a gym during a coordinated assault that killed eight people. An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Philippine woman were among the dead.
A suicide car bomber in December 2009 struck near the home of a former Afghan vice president and a hotel frequented by Westerners, killing eight people and wounding nearly 40 in a neighborhood considered one of Kabul's safest.
And in February 2010, insurgents struck two residential hotels in the heart of Kabul, killing 20 people including seven Indians, a French filmmaker and an Italian diplomat.