Afghan Special Forces took control of the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Kabul on Sunday, after a 13-hour battle with Taliban militants who had stormed the popular hotel the night before.
The attack, which began around 9 p.m. Saturday night, left at least 18 people dead and more than 150 others wounded. The death toll includes four Afghans and 14 foreigners, according to the Interior Ministry, which has not yet identified the nationalities of the victims.
Interior Ministry officials said four attackers were killed in a shootout with security forces, but the precise number of assailants was unclear as of Sunday morning. Witnesses described a scene of chaos and terror, with hotel guests being sprayed with bullets as they fled the assailants. Some were forced to dangle off of hotel balconies to escape a raging fire that ignited at some point during the shooting.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying five gunmen wearing suicide vests targeted foreigners and Afghan officials. The militants had planned to attack the hotel Thursday night but postponed the assault because they wanted to avoid civilian casualties at a wedding scheduled that evening, reports the Associated Press, citing Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
The Intercontinental Hotel is one of Kabul’s two luxury hotels and is a popular gathering place for weddings, visiting foreigners and government conferences. Located in Kabul’s heavily fortified city center, the hotel has been targeted by insurgents before.
In 2011, a group of Taliban fighters assaulted the hotel, engaging in a firefight with security forces that left all the attackers, plus 11 others, dead.
Interior Ministry officials have not said how the Taliban gunmen entered the hotel complex, which is surrounded by checkpoints, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. Security duties at the hotel were reportedly turned over to a private company three weeks ago.
Just days before Saturday’s attack, the U.S. embassy in Kabul issued a warning to American citizens about an elevated risk of attack against local hotels.
“We are aware of reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels in Kabul,” the embassy said Thursday.
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass condemned the attack and said embassy officials would work with their Afghan counterparts to investigate the incident.
“Afghanistan deserves peace and security — not deliberate and murderous attacks on innocent civilians,” he said in a statement Sunday. “My government and the people of the United States stand with the Afghan government and people in fighting terrorism and working to bring peace and security to Afghanistan.”
At least one American was reportedly trapped inside the hotel when the attack began. A U.S. embassy spokesman said officials were in touch with the Afghan government, but had no information about possible American casualties, reports Stars and Stripes.
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