Witnesses to a terrorist rampage at a luxury Kabul hotel have described guests being sprayed with bullets as they ran, whole floors engulfed in flames and a security team that fled “without a fight” from gunmen in army uniforms.
Thick smoke billowed from Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel on Sunday as Afghan and western security forces regained control of the building after involving dozens of hostages including foreigners. Some guests tried to escape the carnage and a later fire by using bed sheets to climb down from balconies.
At least 22 people are now known to have been killed, including six Ukrainians. Afghan officials had earlier put the toll at 18, 14 of them foreigners. The Afghan news agency Tolo claimed one of its reporters had seen “dozens [of] bodies” and other witnesses compared the inside of the hotel to a butcher’s shop.
Representatives from the Afghan airline Kam Air told Reuters that about 40 of its crew, including many foreigners, were staying in the hotel and as many as 10 had died and many were still missing.
“Pray for me, I may die,” wrote the Afghan Telecom executive Aziz Tayeb in a plea he posted to Facebook while hiding behind a pillar on Saturday evening after the heavily armed men stormed the building.
“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 Agence France-Presse on Sunday after escaping the hotel.
Abdul Rahman Naseri, another guest, was in the hall of the hotel when he saw four men dressed in army uniforms. “They were shouting in Pashto: ‘Don’t leave any of them alive, good or bad. Shoot and kill them all,’” Naseri told Reuters. “I ran to my room on the second floor. I opened the window and tried to get out using a tree but the branch broke and I fell to the ground. I hurt my back and broke a leg.”
Another guest, Ahsan Ali, told the Observer: “People ran to their rooms and locked themselves in – it was a dreadful scene.”
The spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed five gunmen belonging to the group were responsible for the attack, while the Afghan interior ministry blamed the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, which killed 21 people in an attack on the same hotel in 2011.
Witnesses said the men appeared in the building from the kitchen at about 9pm local time, spraying bullets at diners in the restaurant before breaking into rooms at the hotel and taking hostages.
Tayeb was one of more than 100 telecom executives and 34 provincial officials who were staying at the site before a conference on Sunday. The building, one of two major luxury hotels in the city, is state owned and not affiliated with the InterContinental chain.
Large sections of Kabul’s centre were already behind concrete blast walls and police checkpoints and the hotel, frequented by government officials and foreigners, was thought to be well protected.
The interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish said a private company had taken over security at the hotel about three weeks ago. A witness told Agence France-Presse the guards had fled “without a fight”.
“They didn’t attack. They didn’t do anything to them. They had no experience,” the 24-year-old hotel employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said the security team were alongside him as he fled the building: “I was asking them, where should I go?”
More than 150 people including 41 foreigners were rescued from the hotel as fires spread throughout the building on Saturday night. “I could repeatedly hear blasts one after another, hand grenades, they used many grenades,” Tayeb recalled.
He escaped with a small group to an outdoor pool area where they hid as the attackers moved through the hotel lighting fires.
“The second, third and fifth floors were on fire – the fifth floor was engulfed in flames,” he said. “We contacted security officials who arrived an hour later and as we were being escorted out I saw five or six bodies outside the hotel.”
Colleagues he spoke with who were still trapped inside were crying and afraid they would die of smoke inhalation, he said.
Footage broadcast by Tolo showed people on balconies tying bedsheets together to escape.
“When the sixth floor caught fire this morning, my roommate told me, either burn or escape,” said Mohammad Musa, who was hiding in his room on the top floor when he heard gunfire. “I got a bed sheet and tied it to the balcony. I tried to come down but I was heavy and my arms were not strong enough. I fell down and injured my shoulder and leg.”
The raid is the latest in a long series of attacks aimed at undermining confidence in Afghanistan’s western-backed government.
Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, on Sunday ordered an investigation and blamed neighbouring countries for helping militant groups. “As long as the terrorist groups have secure protection and safe haven, the region will not find security, stability,” he said in a statement.
In May last year a , killing about 150 people and wounding about 400 others.
The most recent major attack was on 28 December, when a suicide bomber , killing more than 40 people.
The attack came just days after a US security council visit to the city to allow senior diplomats to assess the situation in the country and a warning by the US embassy about possible attacks on major hotels.