KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan police sifted through one of Kabul’s landmark hotels room by room on Wednesday for any more casualties, securing the building after an overnight assault by Taliban suicide bombers killed eight Afghan civilians and police and a foreigner.
The nine attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, stormed the heavily guarded Intercontinental hotel, frequented by Westerners and VIPs, before a NATO helicopter killed the remaining insurgents in a final rooftop battle that ended a raid lasting more than five hours.
The foreign victim was a Spanish civil aviation pilot, according to Spain’s foreign ministry.
The brazen raid came only a week after President Barack Obama announced a phased withdrawal of combat troops to 2014, and it raised more doubts about the ability of Afghan security forces to battle insurgents.
It needed a NATO helicopter to finally finish off the attackers, and NATO trainers helped oversee the Afghan police response to the raid.
After several explosions, attackers entered the hotel late on Tuesday and made their way to the ballroom, a hotel receptionist said.
Some carried tape recorders playing Taliban war songs and shot at anyone they saw. Guests jumped from second and third floors to escape, the receptionist told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
“The police are still searching room by room to see if there are any casualties or any threats,” Kabul police chief Ayoub Salangi told reporters.
Eight people were wounded in the attack, according to the Interior Ministry.
There have been insurgent attacks at a hotel, guesthouse and a supermarket in Kabul over the past year, although the capital has been relatively quiet compared with the rest of the country.
The timing of the attack, suggested similarities with other raids meant to show the Taliban retain the ability to strike at will despite gains made by NATO-led troops over the past 18 months.
Some guests included provincial governors attending a conference due to begin on Wednesday over the transition of civil and military responsibility from foreign forces to Afghans, two Afghan officials said.
Last week, Obama announced plans for an initial withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, with another 23,000 to leave by the end of 2012, sparking concern the Afghan security forces were not ready to take over.
But President Hamid Karzai said the plan stood.
“This insurgent attack cannot stop our security transition process,” Karzai said in a statement.
Hours after the attack began, some foreign hotel guests were driven away in diplomatic vehicles while others waited on a street outside the hotel as the sun rose over Kabul.
Reuters witnesses heard at least seven blasts over the course of more than five hours, with bursts of gunfire heard.
Three insurgents were shot dead while six blew themselves up.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said several fighters from the Islamist group had attacked the hotel.
Mujahid, who spoke to Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, said heavy casualties had been inflicted.
The Taliban often exaggerate the number of casualties in attacks against Western and Afghan government targets.
One blast was heard at the start of the attack and then three more about an hour later, one of the Reuters witnesses said. Bursts of gunfire were heard over the same period and flares lit up the sky.
Reuters television footage showed police firing tracer rounds into the air as other officers moved through the hotel.
Power was cut in the hotel and in surrounding areas after the attack.
The hotel, built on a hill in western Kabul with fortifications around it, was for years the city’s main hotel and is often used for conferences and by Westerners.
Violence has flared across Afghanistan since the Taliban announced the start of a spring offensive at the beginning of May.
The last big attack on a major Kabul hotel used by foreigners was in January 2008, when several Taliban gunmen killed six people in a commando-style raid on the city-center Serena hotel.
The increase in violence comes as NATO-led forces prepare to hand security responsibility to Afghans in seven areas from next month at the start of the gradual transition that will end with all combat foreign troops leaving by the end of 2014.
The two-day conference to discuss the transition was due to begin in a government building in the center of the city on Wednesday. Officials said the conference would go on despite the attack.
Violence across Afghanistan in 2010 the worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Omar Sobhani and Ahmad Masood; Editing by Robert Birsel