KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed Wednesday that his army and police would be ready to take over from foreign forces as planned despite a brazen assault on one of Kabul's premier hotels that left 19 people dead — including all eight attackers.
The more than five-hour standoff at the Inter-Continental — one of the biggest and most complex attacks orchestrated in the Afghan capital — ended when NATO helicopters fired rockets at Taliban gunmen on the roof. The attack appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.
Last week, President Obama announced the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal. The transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans is due to begin officially in seven areas of the nation, including most of Kabul province, in coming weeks.
Militants, armed with explosive vests, anti-aircraft weapons and grenade launchers, began the attack around 10 p.m. Tuesday, on the eve of a conference in the capital about transition plans.
Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the transition commission, opened the conference Wednesday with blunt words for militants.
"The transition process will be done, and these coward enemies will not stop our plans," Mr. Ghani said.
As Afghan leaders work on transition, violence continued in other parts of the nation.
The U.S.-led coalition said a NATO service member was killed by insurgents Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, bringing to 62 the number of foreign troops killed so far this month. No other details were disclosed. Also in the south, the director of religious affairs for Kandahar province was gunned down Wednesday morning in the provincial capital of Kandahar.
Security at the Inter-Continental and other key installations had been tightened for the conference and other official events taking place in the city. Officials said they were investigating how the insurgents were still able to get through and infiltrate the building.
After hours of fighting, two NATO helicopters opened fire at about 3 a.m. on the roof of the six-story hotel where militants had taken up positions. U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopters killed three gunmen and Afghan security forces clearing the hotel engaged the insurgents as they worked their way up to the roof.
A final explosion occurred a few hours later when one of the bombers who had been hiding in a room blew himself up long after ambulances had carried the dead and wounded from the hotel, according to Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, the Kabul police chief.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the coalition and Mr. Karzai all condemned the attack.
The militants are "enjoying the killing of innocent people," Mr. Karzai said in a statement. "Such incidents will not stop us for transitioning security of our country" to Afghan forces, he said.
U.S. Rear Adm. Vic Beck, director of public relations for the international military coalition, said Afghan security forces responded quickly and professionally to the scene — even though NATO helicopters later were called in to attack militants on the roof of the hotel. NATO said coalition mentors also were partnered with some of the units involved in the incident.
"This attack will do nothing to prevent the security transition process from moving forward," Adm. Beck said.
Afghan police were the first to respond to the attack, prompting firefights that resounded across the capital. A few hours later, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived to help.
"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, who was in town to attend the conference. "I heard a lot of shooting."
Jawid, a guest at the hotel who gave only one name, said he jumped out a one-story window to flee the shooting.
"I was running with my family," he said. "There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests."
Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security, said five of the suicide attackers blew themselves up and three were killed on the roof by coalition helicopters.
The 11 civilians killed included a judge from an unnamed province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mr. Mashal said. The Ministry of Interior said a Spanish citizen also was among those killed, but no other information was disclosed.
The ministry said 18 people were wounded in the attack — 13 civilians and five policemen.
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace" in Afghanistan.
"Our room was hit by several bullets," said Mr. Wahedi, who is attending the conference elsewhere in the capital. "We spent the whole night in our room."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in the capital — an apparent attempt to show that they remain potent despite heavy pressure from coalition and Afghan security forces. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers 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.
Before the attack began on Tuesday, officials from the United States, 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 hotel, which is frequented by foreigners and dignitaries, long has been considered one of the most secure sites in the capital.
Guests and visitors must pass through a roadblock and guards posted at the bottom of a hill that winds up to the building, then another checkpoint along the road before reaching the hotel, where more security guards are set up in a building with metal detectors.
"We believe that there was a loophole in the security," Mr. Mashal said. "So far, we don't know how they infiltrated. The intelligence service and the Ministry of Interior will jointly investigate this. We do have a few clues."
The Inter-Continental — known widely as the "Inter-Con" — opened in the late 1960s and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and 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.
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 was 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.