The death toll from the night-time insurgent assault on a landmark Kabul hotel rose to 21 this morning, including the nine heavily-armed attackers who fought Afghan and NATO commandos for four hours as explosions rocked the blacked-out city center.
The siege ended when a NATO helicopter swooped in low over the hotel and fired on several of the attackers who had climbed to roof and were lobbing grenades into the darkness and firing at security forces.
A final blast shattered the Intercontinental Hotel early in the morning when the last of the militants, strapped with explosives and hiding in one of the rooms, blew himself up as two police officers were making a final check of the floors of the fire-gutted five-story building.
A Taliban spokesman took responsibility for the attack, saying the group aimed to murder government officials and foreigners it believed were inside.
The high-profile attack on the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel came just a week after the United States and several European countries announced they will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next month, citing progress in weakening the Taliban insurgency.
Canada is shutting down its combat mission with the withdrawal set to be completed in three weeks.
Like similar incidents at Kabul hotels, a military hospital and Afghan ministry offices in the last two years, the attack showed a high level of coordination. It demonstrated that insurgents still maintain the ability to assemble heavy weapons and willing suicide bombers who can breach the city's best defences and command - if briefly - its high ground.
A number of elected provincial council members, some provincial governors and other local officials had gathered at the Intercontinental, but many had already left before the attack began shortly after 10 p.m. local time on Tuesday.
The officials were in Kabul for a conference that began today to discuss the upcoming transfer of security control from foreign forces to Afghans in seven provinces and cities.
Afghan leaders were defiant after the attack, with President Hamid Karzai saying that government forces were ready to assume responsibility.
The conference opened as scheduled, with defiant words from one of Mr. Karzai's senior aides. "The transition process will be done and these cowards will not stop our plans," said Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, chairman of the transition commission.
Kabul is one of the cities to be officially handed over, and the bulk of the security forces that responded were Afghan army and police.
"This was a complex and deliberate attack that had the potential to become a far more serious incident," said U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Simons, a spokesman for the NATO military coalition. "The response clearly demonstrates the Afghan National Security Force's ability to react to and deal with security incidents in the area."
The Afghan government has pressed foreign donors to supply its forces with military aircraft and helicopters so that it can provide air support for its operations. The United States has purchased 21 MI-17V5 helicopters for the Afghan army, with the first due to be delivered in October and the full order by April 2012.
In addition to the attackers, nine Afghan civilians and two police officers were killed, according to the Mohammed Zahir, head of the criminal investigation for the Kabul police.
Among the dead was a judge from the eastern Afghanistan province of Logar, according to a spokesman for the Afghan national courts. A Spanish commercial pilot also died in the attack, the Spanish foreign ministry confirmed.
A spokeswoman from the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan says a Canadian businessman is unharmed after being caught up in the deadly attack
Emma Welford, a Foreign Affairs communications officer, says the businessman was a guest at the Inter-Continental when it was assaulted, and has been taken to a safe location, but would not confirm whether it was the embassy.
She refused to identify the man, citing privacy protection, but added that he was not injured.
Other foreigners were at the hotel at the time, including two British nationals, but there were no reports any had suffered injuries.
The Taliban have vowed to assassinate people working for the government and foreign agencies, and have been murdering local officials and village elders co-operating with the government at a steady pace for a year.
The local representative of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Kandahar, for example, was assassinated today.
The Intercontinental Hotel, a favourite meeting place for members of the Afghan parliament and visiting foreign dignitaries, sits alone on a hill overlooking the Kabul Polytechnic University.
It was once a part of the Intercontinental hotel chain before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but has been taken over by the Afghan government in recent years.
The winding roadway up to the building is usually heavily guarded, but it can be reached by foot up a steep rocky incline.
Mr. Zahir, the Kabul police investigator, said the attackers approached the hotel from the back, cutting through wire that surrounds his grounds. They entered through the kitchen, shooting and killing the chief cook and an assistant.
They then moved into the hotel lobby and out to a pool area, where some people were celebrating a wedding and others listening to music. Police officials said the men were armed with a small army's worth of weapons including machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.
Hotel guests ran for cover, jumped from windows and stumbled down the hillside.
Nazar Ali Wahedi, chief of intelligence for Helmand province in the south, said he was with several colleagues. "Our room was hit by several bullets," he said. "We spent the whole night in our room."
Another survivor, his clothes soaked in blood, managed to get down to the street at the foot of the hill. He said was in the hotel with a group of people accompanying the provincial council president of Takhar province in the north of Afghanistan.
"I saw three men wearing vests with explosives and they were running around looking for the way to the roof," said the man, who pushed his way through a crowd of reporters and did not give his name. "Suddenly they opened fire and three of my friends were killed. I was shot too and I expected to die."
Police checkpoints at the main intersections in Kabul normally stop cars at major intersections after sunset, keeping most people indoors or confined to their own neighbourhoods.
Earlier this month, the provincial council head of Bamiyan province, long an oasis of calm in war-torn Afghanistan and also on the transition list, was ambushed as he returned home and beheaded in another attack claimed by the Taliban.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups have targeted major hotels in Kabul and a United Nations guesthouse over the past two years, launching teams of suicide bombers and gunmen.
Pres. Karzai has been pushing for peace negotiations with the Taliban, as have the United States and other countries that have kept troops in Afghanistan fighting the insurgents for nearly 10 years.
With files from the Canadian Press