Prime Minister John Key says two New Zealand soldiers who were injured during an attack that killed at least 10 Afghan civilians at a Kabul hotel played a “crucial part” in making the building safe.
Suicide bombers and heavily armed Taleban insurgents attacked the Intercontinental Hotel frequented by westerners in the Afghan capital about 10.30pm, local time.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) this evening confirmed New Zealand special operations forces, in support of the Afghan Police Crisis Response Unit, responded to the incident.
Key said a handful of Kiwi troops were initially at the scene in a mentoring role, but engaged when there was a sudden escalation.
The NZDF said throughout the operation, New Zealand soldiers faced small arms fire and explosions and an ISAF helicopter with a sniper team was utilised to confront the insurgents on the roof of the hotel.
Two soldiers received moderate injuries after taking an active role in the incident in making the building safe, Key said.
The soldiers’ families have since been notified.
Key, who this morning denied any Kiwi involvement, this evening said he was not aware of the incident earlier.
Ministers in New Zealand had been informed at 3.30pm and Key was told later.
Since the team had gone into the area in a mentoring capacity, the prime minister’s office was not informed, he said.
“Sometimes in these instances, the situation changes.”
The NZDF said at 3am local time, a fire started on the fifth floor of the Intercontinental Hotel, most likely as a result of explosives set off by insurgents.
By 6.30am, clearance of the hotel was completed with a number of insurgents killed.
HOTEL TARGETED BY SIX SUICIDE BOMBERS
"At least 10 civilians, including hotel staff, were killed when six suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental," Mohammad Zahir, the head of the Kabul police crime unit, said.
Afghan officials said all the attackers appeared to have been killed. Associated Press reporters on the scene saw at least five bodies removed from the hotel, but could not say whether they were the attackers or their victims.
The Taleban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopters fired on the roof where militants had taken up positions. He said they killed three gunmen and that Afghan security forces clearing the Inter-Continental hotel worked their way up to the roof and engaged the remaining insurgents.
The helicopters attacked after four massive explosions rocked the hotel.
After the gunmen were killed, the hotel lights that had been blacked out during the attack came back on. Afghan security vehicles and ambulances were removing the dead and wounded from the area.
UP TO 70 GUESTS IN HOTEL
Some Afghan provincial governors were staying at the hotel, which is frequented by Afghan officials and foreign visitors.
Samoonyar Mohammad Zaman, a security officer for the Ministry of Interior, said there were 60 to 70 guests at the hotel at the time of the attack.
"I saw the bodies of two suicide bombers at the main entrance of the hotel," he said.
He said some of the provincial governors who were staying at the hotel had left. But some members of their entourages have remained inside.
"There have been some people who have escaped, but most of the guests are still inside," he said.
Zaman said the insurgents were armed with machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. The were using grenade launchers, he said.
Afghan national security forces moved inside the blacked out hotel slowly as to not frighten or hurt any guests, he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said all the suicide bombers either blew themselves up or were killed while other gunmen continued to fire from the roof for a while.
"There are foreign and Afghan guests staying at the hotel," Sediqqi said before the Nato helicopters attacked. "We have reports that they are safe in their rooms, but still there is shooting."
Associated Press reporters at the scene said the two sides fought with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. They saw tracer rounds go up over the darkened hotel and saw shooting from the roof of the five-story building in the rare, night time attack in the Afghan capital.
Police ordered bystanders to lie on the ground for safety.
WE HAVE KILLED AND WOUNDED 50 ENEMIES, TALEBAN CLAIMED
Taleban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to the AP.
Mujahid later issued a statement claiming that Taleban attackers killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.
"One of our fighters called on a mobile phone and said: 'We have gotten onto all the hotel floors and the attack is going according to the plan. We have killed and wounded 50 foreign and local enemies. We are in the corridors of the hotel now taking guests out of their rooms - mostly foreigners. We broke down the doors and took them out one by one.'"
The Taleban often exaggerate casualties from their attacks. The statement did not disclose the number of attackers, but only said one suicide bomber had died.
A few hours into the clashes, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived at the scene.
Initially, the US-led military coalition said the Afghan Ministry of Interior had not requested any assistance from foreign forces. But later, the Nato helicopters arrived on the scene at the hotel on a hill overlooking the capital.
A guest who was inside said he heard gunfire echoing throughout the heavily guarded building. The hotel sits on a hill overlooking the city and streets leading up to it were blocked. The scene was dark as electricity at the hotel and the surrounding area was out.
Azizullah, an Afghan police officer who uses only one name, told an Associated Press reporter at the scene that at least one bomber entered the hotel and detonated a vest of explosives. Another police officer, who would not disclose his name, said there were at least two suicide bombers.
Jawid, a guest at the hotel, said he jumped out a one-story window to flee the shooting.
"I was running with my family," he said. "There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests."
ATTACK FOLLOWED PEACE TALKS
Earlier, officials from the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taleban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.
"The fact that we are discussing reconciliation in great detail is success and progress, but challenges remain and we are reminded of that on an almost daily basis by violence," Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference. "The important thing is that we act and that we act urgently and try to do what we can to put an end to violence."
The attack occurred nearly a week after President Barack Obama announced he was withdrawing 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan and would end the American combat role by the end of 2014.
It took place the day before a conference was scheduled in Kabul to discuss plans for Afghan security forces to take the lead for securing an increasing number of areas of the country between now and 2014 when international forces are expected to move out of combat roles. Afghans across the country were in the city to attend, although it's not known if any where staying at the Inter-Continental.
The Inter-Continental - known widely as the "Inter-Con" opened in the late 1960s, was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and was once part of an international chain. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.
It was used by Western journalists during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
On November 23, 2003, a rocket exploded nearby, shattering windows but causing no casualties.
Twenty-two rockets hit the Inter-Con between 1992 and 1996, when factional fighting convulsed Kabul under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. All the windows were broken, water mains were damaged and the outside structure pockmarked. Some, but not all, of the damage was repaired during Taleban rule.
Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a US raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taleban's annual spring offensive.
On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.
Late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defence Ministry, killing three people.
Other hotels in the capital have also been targeted.
In January 2008, militants stormed Kabul's most popular luxury hotel, the Serena, hunting down Westerners who cowered in a gym during a coordinated assault that killed eight people. An American, a Norwegian journalist and a Philippine woman were among the dead.
A suicide car bomber in December 2009, struck near the home of a former Afghan vice president and a hotel frequented by Westerners, killing eight people and wounding nearly 40 in a neighbourhood considered one of Kabul's safest.
And in February 2010, insurgents struck two residential hotels in the heart of Kabul, killing 20 people including seven Indians, a French filmmaker and an Italian diplomat.
- Stuff, with AP and Reuters