Taliban Claim Responsibility For Afghan Hotel Attack

The Afghan capital Kabul is still reeling from an attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel early Wednesday. NATO helicopters helped to end the standoff which lasted for nearly five hours.

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Kabul is reeling from an attack last night on one of the most secure places in the Afghan capital: the Hilltop Intercontinental Hotel. The Taliban is taking responsibility for an assault that raged through the night until dawn, when NATO helicopters helped kill the last of the insurgents. The death toll was heavy. Afghan authorities say eight suicide bombers killed at least 11 people and wounded more than a dozen others.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE: After a night that many nearby residents said reminded them of when civil war shook the streets of Kabul, dawn revealed the scorched, but solid form of the Soviet-style hotel, still one of the biggest buildings in the city and previously called one of the safest.

(Soundbite of sirens)

LAWRENCE: Police and emergency staff sped up the half-mile-long driveway that leads to the hotel, where authorities said many bodies remained inside. A few guests who fled the hotel during the fighting began to return.

Mr. NAZIR AMIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Nazir Amiri was having a late dinner at the hotel with friends when the attack began. He came back this morning to reclaim his car. He says that after the shooting started, he saw a man in an Afghan police uniform, but with the unusual addition of a white prayer cap and a black vest. The man didn't seem to understand Afghan Dari, and then Amiri thought he must be a foreigner. Then he noticed the other, real Afghan police, starting to run away.

Mr. AMIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: I don't think Mr. Karzai can count on his police or his military, said Amiri.

Mr. ALI AHMED OMAR: Well, yeah. It should be safe. You've got three checkpoints. You search every car.

LAWRENCE: Ali Ahmed Omar and his father are here from California, visiting their Afghan family. They were relaxing around the pool with friends when it started. Omar says he couldn't understand how the gunmen got through the police gates, as well as the intelligence agents who have a checkpoint at the top of the hill.

Mr. OMAR: We're sitting there. We hear gunshots from far, and they're saying that it's a wedding, some kids are playing around, don't worry, this and that. And then the shots kept getting closer and closer. And the next thing you know, the guy is there shooting people.

LAWRENCE: Ali and his family fled down the hill, breaking down a garden wall to escape. They heard loud explosions as they stumbled out to the street below. NATO helicopters joined the fight a few hours later, shooting the last gunmen as they fired from the hotel roof.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which may have targeted Afghan politicians who are in Kabul for a conference, about next month's transition to Afghan control of security for seven areas around the country, including Kabul.

The attack raised questions about transition and also the American draw-down of troops, says Sahel Wafaq, who watched the scene from his bedroom across the road from the hotel gate.

Mr. SAHEL WAFAQ: I don't think that they're ready to take over the security. I suppose as soon as the American troops leave, you know, you'll see the chaos -not only from Taliban, not only from the insurgents, but, you know, within, you know, the Afghan people, the warlords and the rest. So I don't think, you know, they're ready to take over at all.

LAWRENCE: The Intercontinental Hotel has stood through the Russian invasion, the civil war of the 1990s, and the past decade of American intervention, sometimes serving as a refuge for foreigners as the city changed hands. It's been hit with rockets in the past, but rarely have gunmen been able to breach the hotel's huge, elevated perimeter.

This is the fifth major attack inside Kabul since April, and insurgents seem determined to demonstrate their ability to penetrate anywhere in the capital and anywhere in Afghanistan.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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