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At least five dead in Kabul hotel attack: officials

© AFP / by Allison JACKSON | At least five people have died in an attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel when gunmen began firing at guests and staff

KABUL (AFP) - 

Gunmen have killed at least five people and wounded eight others in an ongoing attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, officials said Sunday, as panicked guests were seen climbing over balconies to escape.

More than eleven hours after the assault began Afghan security forces were still clearing the hotel, with at least one of the four gunmen on the loose, a security source said.

"Five Afghans are dead," interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish told reporters near the hotel, adding 100 hostages, including 16 foreigners, had been released.

At least two of the attackers have been killed, Danish said.

Dramatic images broadcast on Afghanistan's Tolo News showed thick black smoke and flames billowing from the top of the six-floor hotel.

Several people could be seen climbing over a top-floor balcony using bedsheets to escape, with one losing his grip and plunging to the ground.

Four gunmen burst into the hotel on Saturday night, opening fire on guests and staff and taking dozens of people hostage.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest assault in the war-torn Afghan capital, which followed a series of security warnings in recent days to avoid hotels and other locations frequented by foreigners.

It was not clear how many people were still inside the hotel, which was attacked by Taliban militants in 2011.

During the night special forces were lowered by helicopters onto the roof of the landmark hotel, interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP earlier.

A guest hiding in a room told AFP he could hear gunfire inside the 1960s hotel where dozens of people attending an information technology conference on Sunday were staying.

"I don't know if the attackers are inside the hotel but I can hear gunfire from somewhere near the first floor," the man, who did not want to be named, said by telephone.

"We are hiding in our rooms. I beg the security forces to rescue us as soon as possible before they reach and kill us."

His phone was switched off when AFP tried to contact him again.

- 'Fleeing like crazy' -

Afghan Telecom regional director Aziz Tayeb, who was attending the IT conference, said he saw the attackers enter the hotel as he was walking towards the exit.

"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.

Local resident Abdul Sattar said he had spoken by phone to some of his friends who are chefs and waiters at the hotel and are trapped inside.

"Suddenly they attacked the dinner gathering... (then) they broke into the rooms, took some people hostage and they opened fire on some of them," he told AFP.

Rahimi said the attackers were armed with small weapons and rocket-propelled grenades when they stormed the hotel, which is a popular venue for weddings, conferences and political gatherings.

The last major attack on a high-end hotel in Kabul was in March 2014 when four teenage gunmen raided the Serena, killing nine people including AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad.

The Intercontinental was previously targeted in June 2011 when a suicide attack claimed by the Taliban killed 21 people, including 10 civilians.

Security at the Intercontinental, which is not part of the global InterContinental chain, is relatively lax compared with other luxury hotels in Kabul.

Even before the attack was over, authorities were questioning how the assailants got past the hotel's security, which was taken over by a private company three weeks ago, Danish said.

"We will investigate it," he said.

A hotel employee told AFP that as he fled the staff living quarters located in a building next to the hotel he saw the new security guards running for their lives.

"They didn't do anything, they didn't attack. They had no experience," the man said on the condition of anonymity.

by Allison JACKSON

© 2018 AFP