Senior Afghan security officials say at least 30 people were killed in an attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel by Taliban militants, and they warn that the death toll could climb higher.
Wahid Majroh, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, said on January 21 that 19 bodies had been brought to city hospitals. Officials said 14 foreigners were among the dead.
But a senior Afghan security official told the Reuters news agency that the death toll was at least 30, including hotel staff, guests, and members of security forces who battled the assailants. Some local reports said 40 people had been killed.
Officials said six attackers were also killed by security forces, although some reports stated there were only five assailants.
The militants, dressed in army uniforms, launched the assault on the luxury hotel in the Afghan capital in the evening on January 20.
Officials said the gunmen charged through the hallways and sought out foreigners and Afghan officials inside the hotel.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said more than 150 people, including 41 foreigners, were rescued or managed to escape during the siege.
Eleven of the 14 foreigners killed were employees of KamAir, a private Afghan airline, Danish said.
A family member told the Associated Press that two Venezuelan pilots working for KamAir were among those killed.
KamAir put out a statement saying some of its flights were disrupted because of the attack. It added it was still attempting to account for all of its employees who had been at the hotel.
Six of those killed were Ukrainians, said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who added that his office was working with Afghan law enforcement agencies “to clarify the circumstances of this terrorist act.”
A citizen from Kazakhstan also was among the dead, according to a spokesman for the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.
Afghan security officials speculated that the attack was timed to take place as more than 30 provincial officials were at the hotel, attending a conference organized by the Telecommunications Ministry.
Among the dead was Ahmad Farzan, an employee of the High Peace Council, a commission tasked with facilitating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban as well as other opposition groups.
Danish told a news conference that an initial investigation showed the insurgents had gained access to the hotel from the north side and stormed its kitchen.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack at the heavily guarded hotel, which is popular with foreigners and Afghan officials.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the militants first planned to attack the hotel on January 18, but postponed it because a wedding was taking place then and they wanted to avoid civilian casualties.
The Interior Ministry blamed the extremist Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan and allied with the Taliban.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered an investigation and said militant groups were being helped by neighboring countries.
Afghan officials, along with U.S. President Donald Trump, have accused neighboring Pakistan of providing a safe haven for terrorists operating in Afghanistan, a charge Islamabad denies.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States strongly condemned the attack, adding that Washington “stands with the government and people of Afghanistan. We remain firmly committed to supporting Afghan efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country.”
Pakistan also condemned the “brutal terrorist attack” and called for greater cooperation against militants.
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.
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 Reuters, AFP, tolonews.com, AP, and The Stars & Stripes