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19 Dead in Taliban Siege at Luxury Kabul Hotel

Afghan forces secure the region around the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 21.         Afghan forces secure the region around the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 21.

Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul and killed at least 19 people including a foreigner, sparking a 12-hour battle that left terrified guests scrambling to escape and parts of the building ablaze.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the six-storey Intercontinental Hotel on a hilltop overlooking the Afghan capital. People trapped at the top of the building tied bedsheets together and climbed over balconies to escape the overnight assault, AFP reported.

One lost his grip and fell in dramatic television footage by Afghanistan’s Tolo News station, which also showed black smoke and flames billowing from the top of the hotel.

The news station also disputed the death toll, citing one of the survivors that the number of dead could be as high as 43.

Special forces were lowered by helicopters during the night onto the roof of the landmark 1960s building, with Afghan security forces killing four attackers in the hours-long assault, the interior ministry said.

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

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the latest assault in the war-torn capital via an email from spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. The interior ministry had earlier blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

It is unclear exactly how many gunmen were involved and even after officials said the attack was over, sporadic gunshots and explosions could be heard from the site.

  Precarious Situation

Although US and Afghan officials say the Taliban has come under strain after the United States increased assistance to Afghan security forces and stepped up airstrikes 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.

But the attack, just days after a UN 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.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered an investigation and said militant groups were being helped by neighboring countries.

“As long as the terrorist groups have secure protection and safe haven, the region will not find security, stability,” he said in a statement.

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