The Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on a major luxury hotel in Kabul that left at least 18 people dead although reports suggested the final death toll could still be higher.
Gunmen stormed the Hotel International late on January 20, sparking a 12-hour fight with security forces that ended on January 21 with at least three attackers killed, the Afghan Interior Ministry said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said the 18 killed included 14 foreigners and a telecommunications official from the western Farah Province who was attending a conference.
"Eleven of the 14 foreigners killed were employees of KamAir, a private Afghan airline," said Danish. KamAir also put out an announcement saying some of their flights were disrupted because of the attack.
The Interior Ministry said on January 21 that the siege had ended with at least three attackers killed.
A Ukrainian national was among the first civilians reported killed in the siege.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Vasyl Kyrylych, later said in a message on Twitter that “a citizen of Ukraine was killed” in the assault. He did not provide further details.
At least one report suggested the final number of dead was still unknown. Afghanistan's TOLO news channel said the figure could be much higher, quoting a reporting who said he had seen dozens of bodies inside the hotel.
Sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard from the site after the authorities declared the siege over, some reports said.
More than 150 people, including about 40 foreigners, were freed by security personnel at the hotel after the attack, which began around 9 p.m.
It was initially reported that four gunmen were involved in the assault. The Taliban said they were five.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said 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 AFP as saying there were four attackers inside the building who were "shooting at guests."
A hotel guest contacted by AFP said 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