International News

At least 5 killed as gunmen storm Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul

Gunmen killed at least five people and wounded eight others in an attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, an official said Sunday, as the eleven hours-long siege continued.
“Five are dead,” an official with the Afghan spy agency told AFP, adding 100 hostages have been released.
Gunmen had burst into Kabul’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel on Saturday, shooting at guests and staff and setting the building on fire, officials said, as security forces battled to end the more than eight hours-long assault.
The gunmen had stormed the hotel around 9:45pm PST. The hotel was still under siege and sporadic gunfire could be heard coming from the hotel by 12:20am, Tolo news reported.
Special forces were lowered by helicopters onto the roof of the landmark hilltop hotel during the night-time siege, interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP, adding two attackers had been killed.
It is not clear how many people are still inside the hotel, which was previously attacked by Taliban militants in 2011, or whether any foreigners are among them.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack in the Afghan capital that followed a series of security warnings in recent days to avoid hotels and other locations frequented by foreigners.
“Four attackers are inside the building,” an official at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) spy agency told AFP. They are “shooting at guests”, he said.
A guest hiding in a room told AFP he could hear gunfire inside the 1960s hilltop hotel where dozens of people attending an information technology conference on Sunday were staying.
“I don’t know if the attackers are inside the hotel but I can hear gunfire from somewhere near the first floor,” the man, who did not want to be named, said by telephone.
“We are hiding in our rooms. I beg the security forces to rescue us as soon as possible before they reach and kill us.” His phone was switched off when AFP tried to contact him again.
Another official said the attackers were armed with small weapons and rocket-propelled grenades when they blasted their way into the hotel, which often hosts weddings, conferences and political gatherings.
Earlier, interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFPthat two attackers have been killed.
“Some other guests have been rescued. We will be able to release casualty figures once the operation ends.”
Rahimi said the first and second floors of the hotel have been secured by security forces, who are now trying to clear the fourth and fifth floors.
Special forces were being lowered by helicopters onto the rooftop of the hotel, he added.
The fourth floor of the hotel, which boasts several restaurants and an outdoor swimming pool, had been set on fire during the raid, the NDS official said.
“The operation will soon end and the attackers will be killed,” interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told AFP.
Danish told Tolo news that some guests and staff had been taken to a secure area by the security forces.
Local resident Abdul Sattar said he had spoken by phone to some of his friends who are chefs and waiters at the hotel and are trapped inside.
“Suddenly they attacked the dinner gathering… (then) they broke into the rooms, took some people hostage and they opened fire on some of them,” he told AFP.
Security questioned
Authorities are already investigating how the attackers got past security which was taken over by a private company two weeks ago, Danish said.
“They probably used a back door in the kitchen to enter,” he said.
Abdullah Sabet, an official at the communications and information technology ministry, said IT officials from around the country were staying at the hotel ahead of a conference on Sunday.
“There were 40 of them in the hotel. We don’t know if any of them have been killed or wounded,” Sabet said.
Security at the Intercontinental, which is not part of the global InterContinental chain, is relatively lax compared with other high-end hotels in Kabul.
A conference on Afghanistan-China relations was held in one of its function rooms earlier Saturday, attended by the Chinese embassy’s political counsellor Zhang Zhixin.
An AFP reporter who attended the conference passed through two vehicle security checkpoints. At the entrance to the building there was a physical inspection that could be easily evaded by scaling a low-level barrier and entering the lobby.
Security alerts sent in recent days to foreigners living in Kabul warned that “extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels in Kabul” as well as public gatherings and other locations “where foreigners are known to congregate”.
The Intercontinental was last targeted in June 2011 when a suicide attack claimed by the Taliban killed 21 people, including 10 civilians.
Security in Kabul has been tightened since May 31 when a massive truck bomb ripped through the diplomatic quarter, killing some 150 people and wounding around 400 others — mostly civilians. No group has yet claimed that attack.
The militant Islamic State group has claimed most of the recent attacks in the Afghan capital, but authorities suspect that the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network has been involved in some of them.
The deadliest of the recent attacks happened at a Shia cultural centre on December 29 when a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing more than 40 people.