The Afghan Interior Ministry says a deadly siege of a major luxury hotel in Kabul has ended, with at least three attackers dead after a 12-hour security operation.
A spokesman for the ministry told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan early on January 21 that five civilians were killed by the assailants and six others were injured, including three police officers.
One foreigner was among the dead.
More than 150 people, including about 40 foreigners, were freed by security personnel at the Hotel International after the attack, which began around 9 p.m. local time on January 20.
It was initially reported that four gunmen were involved in the attack.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said that security forces were continuing to clear the luxury hotel.
He added that security forces were going room-by-room to confirm that there were no other attackers.
Interior Minister Wais Barmak told RFE/RL that a private security company had taken responsibility for protection of the hotel around two weeks ago.
Earlier, Afghan security officials said four gunmen stormed the hotel, apparently entering through the kitchen, opening fire on guests and battling special forces through the night.
Reuters cited hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who was able to flee the scene uninjured, as saying that guests and staff were attempting to escape as a flurry of gunfire surrounded them.
During the siege, an unidentified Afghan intelligence official was quoted by the French AFP news agency as saying there were four attackers inside the building who were "shooting at guests."
A hotel guest contacted by AFP told the news agency by phone that "I don't know if the attackers are inside the hotel, but I can hear gunfire from somewhere near the first floor."
"We are hiding in our rooms. I beg the security forces to rescue us as soon as possible before they reach and kill us," the guest added.
Aziz Tayeb, a regional director for Afghan Telecom, said he was attending an IT conference at the hotel when he saw the attackers enter the hotel.
"Everything became chaotic in a moment. I hid behind a pillar, and I saw people who were enjoying themselves a second ago screaming and fleeing like crazy, and some of them falling down, hit by bullets," Tayeb told AFP.
Witnesses reported seeing several people climbing over a top-floor balcony using bedsheets to escape the attackers.
Nasrat Rahimi, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said a wedding ceremony was taking place at the hotel when the attack occurred but that all participants had been brought to safety.
Rahimi said the attackers set the kitchen and third floor on fire as they attacked the hotel, with “almost half the third floor burnt.”
Television video showed black smoke rising from the massive landmark hotel in the early morning of January 21.
The Intercontinental was targeted in a June 2011 suicide attack that killed 21 people, among them at least 10 civilians.
The Western-backed government in Kabul has been struggling to fend off the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014.
U.S. President Donald Trump in August unveiled his new strategy for the South Asia region, under which Washington has deployed 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist local security forces, and to carry out counterterrorism missions.
The United States currently has around 14,000 uniformed personnel in the country. Witnesses reported seeing U.S. military vehicles at the site after the attack assisting Afghan security personnel.
With reporting by AFP, tolonews.com, CNN, dpa, Reuters, and AP