Kabul, Afghanistan - Nine suicide bombers managed to elude several rings of security and reach one of the capital’s premier hotels, which was busy with guests, many of whom had come from the provinces to the city for a conference on the transition of security responsibility to Afghan control.
The bombers, according to witnesses, entered the hotel, apparently with the intention of searching out foreign and Afghan guests. However, once inside at least one bomber hesitated and others used different floors of the hotel as positions for shooting guests who were in the garden.
By Wednesday morning, the nearly six-hour attack at the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel had ended, leaving at least 21 people dead, including two police officers, nine Afghan civilians and one foreigner, a Spaniard, according to the Interior Ministry. At least five of the suicide bombers blew themselves up and three were shot dead from helicopter gunships by NATO troops.
“It is too early to say who was behind the attack,” said Lotfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the national intelligence service. “We have started a joint investigation with the Ministry of the Interior. We believe there was a loophole in security.”
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attack , calling those who had carried it out “mercenary terrorists” and said that Afghans would not be deterred from taking over responsibility for security. “No such attacks can stand in our way to implement the transition process,” he said.
All but one of those killed in the attack Tuesday night were Afghans, but early reports by security officials said two foreigners were among 14 people who were injured, Mr. Mashal said. It was unclear whether the Spaniard who died was one of the two who had been injured.
The Intercontinental was once favored by foreigners. But as new hotels and guesthouses have proliferated in recent years, the hotel has come to be more frequently used by Afghans, although Westerners and Afghans use it for conferences and other gatherings.
The attack, coming on a hot June evening, caught many here off guard. Kabul, in contrast to other areas of the country, is relatively safe and while there are periodic attacks, people generally feel safe enough to visit local markets and stay out drinking tea until late at night.
At the time of the attack, guests, having finished dinner, were wandering the hotel grounds to catch the evening breeze. Others were milling in the lobby, and waiters were still rushing plates of food to hungry guests and a wedding party, witnesses said. Among those at the hotel, there were a number of Afghan local officials who had come to the capital for the transition conference. Seventy of the hotel’s rooms were occupied, Mr. Mashal said.
The provincial council chairman of Takhar, Maulawi Amadullah Usoli, was sitting by the hotel swimming pool with several friends when the shooting began. “My friend, an engineer, was sitting beside me and a judge from Takhar and his security guard, and suddenly we heard gunshots and then we saw around 15 people running toward the entrance of the hotel,” he said. “Engineer Azizullah Rahman hid behind a tree, and there was a ditch and I jumped into the ditch, and some of these bombers went into the hotel, and 20 minutes later there was gunfire from the third floor of the hotel.”
Another visitor at the hotel, Nazir Amini, an Afghan who has lived in Germany for many years and was visiting, said that he saw a man enter the hotel wearing a police uniform, but that instead of the standard police cap, he wore the white hat that is often favored by religious Afghans.
“I said, ‘Are you a policeman or are you a bomber?’ ” Mr. Amini said. “ ‘What kind of stupid police are you?’ ”
“The man did not reply, even though I used some curse words and I thought maybe he does not understand the language. While I was talking to this guy, three police said, ‘Come here, come here, don’t talk to him, don’t stand near him, he’s the bomber.’
“I said, ‘Then, kill him, he’s a bomber.’ ”
Mr. Amini said the police repeatedly urged him to move away from the man. “When I saw this I thought, this country is totally hopeless, with these kind of coward police you cannot protect your country,” he said. “How can you be ready for the transition?”
Coming within a week of President Obama’s announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the attack underscored the still precarious nature of security, even in the capital, as the transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces is about to begin in several areas of the country, including Kabul.
The attack was one of the largest and most complex to take place in Kabul, although others had higher death tolls.
The heavily guarded hotel, which sits on a hill on the western side of Kabul, has police guards at its base and intelligence officers stationed at the top of the hill and near the entrance. It was not clear how so many attackers could have breached the building’s defenses.
Attacks in Kabul have been relatively rare, although in May there was an attack on a similarly soft target: a bomber detonated his explosives on the grounds of a military hospital, killing six people.
In announcing the troop withdrawal, Mr. Obama said he could reduce the number of American forces because the influx of about 30,000 troops that he ordered more than a year ago had succeeded in pushing back the Taliban. Although the insurgents have been set back, particularly in their strongholds in the south, they have proved themselves still capable of carrying out assassinations and suicide bombings, even in urban centers.
Also on Tuesday, the White House’s nominee to become the next American commander in Afghanistan faced tough questioning from a Senate panel about President Obama’s plan to pull troops from the country.
The nominee, Lt. Gen. John Allen, said that the “surge” of more than 30,000 American troops had halted the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan, but he added that the fighting remained intense as insurgents tried to regain lost territory.
Sharifullah Sahak and Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting.