At least 19 dead after overnight battle at Kabul hotel

KABUL, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Gunmen in army uniforms 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 of dead and wounded may still be higher.

Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said that 19 bodies had been brought into city hospitals, with six identified as foreigners.

However, a senior Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the death toll was over 30 and might climb higher. The dead included hotel staff and guests as well as members of the security forces who fought the attackers.

All five attackers were also killed, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danesh said.

The raid was the latest in a series of attacks that have underlined the city'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 aircrew, many of whom are foreigners, were staying in the hotel and as many as 10 had been killed. Local media reports said the dead included Venezuelans and Ukrainians.

Zamari Kamgar, the airline's deputy director, said it was still trying to locate staff.

RELATED: Gunmen attack top Kabul hotel, take hostages

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A member of the Afghan security forces keeps watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A member of the Afghan security forces arrives the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A member of the Afghan security forces keeps watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan security forces arrive the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
An Afghan policeman keeps watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
An Afghan policeman keeps watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
An Afghan security force keeps watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan security force keep watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan security force keep watch near the site of an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 20, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
The Intercontinental Hotel is seen during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
The Intercontinental Hotel is seen during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
The Intercontinental Hotel is seen during attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
The Intercontinental Hotel is seen burnt during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
A man tries to escape from a balcony at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan policemen keep watch close to the entrance gate of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan. January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan policemen keep watch close to the entrance gate of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan. January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A wounded security guard receives help after being rescued from Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A man tries to escape from a balcony at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
An Afghan security force personnel keeps watch close to the entrance gate of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan. January 21, 2018.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A man tries to escape from a balcony at Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel during an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
People escape during an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan security forces leave from the site of an incident after gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan security forces leave from the site of an incident after gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan women and child walk by ambulances during an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Afghan journalists take cover as they film the site of an attack by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
People look at the site where gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan security forces are seen at the roof top of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul,�fghanistan�anuary 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan security forces keep watch as smoke rises from the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul,�fghanistan�anuary 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
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The Taliban, which 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 a U.S. embassy warning of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul.

Several armored U.S. military vehicles with heavy machine guns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units as Special Forces maneuvered 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."

 

U.S. WARNING

Although U.S. and Afghan officials say the Taliban has been forced onto the back foot after the United States increased its help to Afghan security forces and stepped up air strikes last year, security remains precarious across the country.

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.

As pressure on the battlefield has increased, officials have warned that the danger of attacks on high-profile targets in Kabul and other cities would increase. The insurgents have carried out dozens of such attacks over recent years.

After repeated strikes on Kabul, notably last May when a truck bomber killed at least 150 people outside the German embassy, security has been further tightened.

Large areas of central Kabul are already closed off behind high concrete blast walls and police checkpoints but the ability of the assailants to get into a well-protected hotel frequented by both government officials and foreigners demonstrated how difficult it remains to stop them.

The attack, just days after a U.N. Security Council visit to Kabul to allow senior representatives of member states to assess the situation in Afghanistan, may further weaken confidence in the government.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered an investigation and said militant groups were being helped by neighboring countries.

"As long as the terrorist groups have secure protection and safe haven, the region will not find security, stability," he said in a statement.

U.S. ambassador John Bass said the embassy was in close contact with Afghan authorities.

"Such violence has no place here or anywhere in the world," he said in a statement. (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Sonya Hepinstall)

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