Taliban insurgents in army uniform stormed Intercontinental Hotel in Afghanistan's capital, triggering a 13-hour gun battle with security forces. Officials say the dead included 14 foreigners, 11 of them employees of KamAir, a private Afghan airline.

An Afghan security personnel stands guard as smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces in Kabul on January 21, 2018.
An Afghan security personnel stands guard as smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between Taliban fighters and Afghan security forces in Kabul on January 21, 2018. (AFP)

A Taliban assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Afghanistan's capital killed at least 30 people, including 14 foreigners, and pinned security forces down for more than 13 hours before the last attacker was killed on Sunday, with the casualty toll expected to rise.

The heavily-guarded luxury hotel is popular among foreigners and Afghan officials. 

Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the ministry of public health, said that 19 bodies had been brought into city hospitals, with six identified as foreigners.

However a senior Afghan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the death toll was over 30 and might climb higher. 

The dead included hotel staff and guests as well as members of the security forces who fought the attackers.

All five attackers were also killed, interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said.

"11 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.

Ukraine said one of its citizens was killed in the attack. Vasyl Kyrylych, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, announced the death of the Ukrainian citizen in a brief statement on Twitter, without providing further details. 

Afghan officials did not identify the foreigner killed in the attack.

Ten other people, including six from the security forces, were reported wounded and more than 150 people, including 41 foreigners, were rescued from the hotel, Danish said.

The Afghan Taliban claimed the attack, saying five gunmen armed with suicide vests targeted foreigners and Afghan officials. 

The group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgents initially planned to attack the hotel on Thursday night but postponed the assault because there was a wedding underway and they wanted to avoid civilian casualties. 

Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal said those killed in the attack also included Abdullah Waheed Poyan, Afghanistan's Karachi consulate head.

As day broke on Sunday, thick clouds of black smoke could be seen pouring from the building. Several armoured US military vehicles with heavy machine guns could be seen close to the hotel along with Afghan police units.

The raid came just days after a US embassy warning of possible attacks on hotels in Kabul.

The raid was the latest in a long series of attacks which have underlined the city's precarious situation and the ability of militants to mount high profile operations aimed at undermining confidence in the Western-backed government.

TRT World's Arabella Munro explains how it all unfolded. 

Hotel manager Ahmad Haris Nayab, who escaped unhurt, said the attackers had got into the main part of the hotel through a kitchen before going through the hotel.

According to one witness, who did not want to be named, the attackers took hotel staff and guests hostage.

Horror on repeat

The Intercontinental Hotel, an imposing 1960s structure set on a hilltop and heavily protected like most public buildings in Kabul, was previously attacked by Taliban fighters in 2011.

It is one of two main luxury hotels in the city 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 took place, Ahmad Waheed, an official at the telecommunications ministry, said.

The attack, just days after a United Nations Security Council visit to Kabul to allow senior representatives of member states to assess the situation in Afghanistan, may lead to a further tightening of security in Kabul.

Large areas of the city centre are already closed off behind high concrete blast walls and police checkpoints but the ability of the attackers to get into a well-protected hotel frequented by both government officials and foreigners demonstrated how difficult it remains to prevent high profile attacks.

Danish said a private company had taken over security of the hotel about three weeks ago.

NATO-led mission says monitoring situation

Captain Tom Gresback, spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, said they were watching closely but it was not clear what role international forces were taking in suppressing the attack.

"Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are leading the response efforts. According to initial reports, no Resolute Support or (US forces) members were injured in this incident," he said in an emailed statement.

Although Resolute Support says the Taliban has come under pressure after the United States increased assistance to Afghan security forces and stepped up air strikes against 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.

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

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".

Source: TRTWorld and agencies