Gunmen attack Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, take hostages, deaths reported

FILE PHOTO: View of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 25, 2016. Picture taken January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

KABUL (Reuters) – A group of as many as four gunmen attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday night, seizing hostages and exchanging gunfire with security forces as the building caught fire and residents and staff fled.

Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who managed to escape unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen and people fled amid bursts of gunfire on all sides.

Afghan interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said many details of the raid, which came days after a U.S. embassy warning of possible attacks on hotels in the capital, were still unclear and there were no official casualty figures.

However Nasrat Rahimi, another interior ministry spokesman, said several people had been killed and at least six wounded.

In addition, at least two of the raiders had been killed as Afghan Special Forces cleared the first floor and moved to the second, battling the attackers who appeared to have a large supply of hand grenades.

According to one witness, who did not want to be quoted by name, the attackers took some hotel staff and guests hostage.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the latest in a long series of attacks in Kabul underlined once more the precarious situation in the Afghan capital, where hundreds of civilians were killed last year despite ever increasing security measures.

The Intercontinental Hotel, located on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in the city, was previously attacked by Taliban fighters in 2011.

It is one of Kabul’s two main luxury hotels and had been due to host an information technology conference on Sunday.

More than 100 IT managers and engineers were on site when the attack occurred, Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry, said.

On Thursday, the U.S. embassy in Kabul issued a warning to U.S. citizens, saying “We are aware of reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels in Kabul”.

Although the NATO-led Resolute Support mission says the Taliban has come under pressure after the United States increased assistance to Afghan security forces and stepped up air strikes against the insurgents, security remains precarious.

As pressure on the battlefield has increased, security officials have warned that the danger of attacks on high profile targets in Kabul and other cities would increase as insurgents sought to undermine confidence in security.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters during a visit to Cairo he had been briefed on the attack and that officials were monitoring the situation but he had no immediate comment.

After repeated attacks in Kabul, notably an incident in May last year in which a truck bomber outside the German embassy killed at least 150 people, security has been further tightened in government and diplomatic areas.

While it shares the same name, the hotel in Kabul is not part of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which issued a statement in 2011 saying that “the hotel Inter-continental in Kabul is not part of IHG and has not been since 1980”.

Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Alexander Smith and Andrew Bolton