Seven people were killed in a more than four-hour standoff between militants and police at a Kabul hotel after insurgents armed with grenades and explosives struck one of the capital's most prominent landmarks late Tuesday.
A rare nighttime assault, the siege was ended by a NATO helicopter firing rockets at gunmen on the rooftop of the besieged Intercontinental Hotel, as Afghan security forces stormed the top of the building. The death toll did not include insurgents.
A Taliban spokesman called news agencies in Kabul to take responsibility for the attack. The attack could be interpreted as a signal to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and authorities that the Taliban could breach the city's defences and command, even briefly, its high ground.
The high-profile attack on the hilltop Intercontinental came just a week after the United States and several European countries announced they will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next month, citing progress in weakening the Taliban insurgency. Canada is shutting down its combat mission with the withdrawal set to be completed by the end of next month..
Eight other people - two policemen and six civilians - were wounded in the attack, which ended early Wednesday, said Daoud Amin, deputy police chief in Kabul.
Six suicide bombers attacked the hotel, which is frequented by Afghan officials and foreign visitors, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said. He said two were killed by hotel guards and four others either blew themselves up or were killed in the air strike or by Afghan troops.
U.S. Army Major Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopter fired on the roof where militants had taken up positions. He said they killed three gunmen and that Afghan security forces clearing the hotel worked their way up to the roof and engaged the remaining insurgents.
Several provincial officials were believed to be staying at the hotel in advance of a conference called by the government to discuss the coming transition of security in parts of the country to full Afghan control.
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, called the assailants "the enemy of stability and peace" in Afghanistan.
Mr. Wahedi was in town to attend Wednesday's transition conference, which was being held at a government building in the capital.
"Our room was hit by several bullets," he said. "We spent the whole night in our room."
The attack began around 10:30 p.m. local time Tuesday and ended around 3 a.m. Wednesday.
One survivor, his clothes soaked in blood, said he was in the hotel with a group of people accompanying the provincial council president of Takhar province in the north of Afghanistan.
"I saw three men wearing vests with explosives and they were running around looking for the way to the roof," said the man, who pushed his way through a crowd of reporters and did not give his name. "Suddenly they opened fire and three of my friends were killed. I was shot too and I expected to die."
The Taliban have vowed to assassinate people working for the government and foreign agencies, and have been murdering local officials and village elders co-operating with the government at a steady pace for a year.
Another Ministry of Interior official, Samoonyar Mohammad Zaman, told the Associated Press that 60 to 70 people were inside the hotel and its restaurant at the time of the attack. The gunmen, he said, were armed with a grab bag of weapons including machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.
The Intercontinental Hotel, a favourite meeting place for members of the Afghan parliament and visiting foreign dignitaries, sits on a hill overlooking the Kabul Polytechnic University. It was once a part of the Intercontinental hotel chain before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but has been taken over by the Afghan government in recent years.
The winding roadway up to the building is usually heavily guarded, but it can be reached by foot up a steep rocky incline.
Police officials said at least one of the suicide bombers detonated his explosives inside the hotel. A few guests were seen stumbling down the hill in panic, and some were reported to have thrown themselves out of windows to escape the raging gun battle.
One witness said smoke could be seen rising from the hotel, although no fires were visible. Afghan security forces surrounded the hotel and firefighters arrived after the last of the insurgents were killed.
Police checkpoints at the main intersections in Kabul normally stop cars at major intersections after sunset, keeping most people indoors or confined to their own neighbourhoods.
Kabul is one of the provincial capitals slated to officially come under full Afghan security control this summer. Afghan police and soldiers responded to the hotel attack. The Taliban have targeted other areas slated for transfer, including the eastern city of Herat.
Earlier this month, the provincial council head of Bamiyan province, long an oasis of calm in war-torn Afghanistan and also on the transition list, was ambushed as he returned home and beheaded in another attack claimed by the Taliban.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups have targeted major hotels in Kabul and a United Nations guesthouse over the past two years, launching teams of suicide bombers and gunmen.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been pushing for peace negotiations with the Taliban, as have the United States and other countries that have kept troops in Afghanistan fighting the insurgents for nearly 10 years.
With a report from Associated Press
Editor's Note: This article originally stated several NATO helicopters were used in the attack. In fact, only one helicopter was involved in combat while another patrolled nearby.