July 1, 2011— -- In the most extensive account yet provided of the siege of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, Afghan police and hotel officials described how a relatively undisciplined group of suicide bombers kept Afghan forces at bay for hours -- and was only subdued thanks to a NATO helicopter and NATO special forces operating inside the hotel.
Their descriptions contradict NATO officials' claims that its forces were barely needed and that Afghan forces secured the hotel themselves. The revelations come as Afghan forces are expected to take over security operations from the U.S. in seven cities or areas of Afghanistan starting later this month.
For the first time, a senior police official admitted that his forces could not have retaken the hotel without the help of international troops shooting down onto the roof from the helicopter. He also admitted that one of his men accidentally shot and wounded a New Zealand special forces soldier who was in the hotel embedded with the Afghan police. An intelligence official also acknowledged that initially, none of the Afghan police who guard the hotel responded to the attackers in any way.
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The Afghan officials gave ABC News a tour of the hotel where suicide bombers blew themselves up in hallways, stairwells, and rooms, blanketing the hotel with the stench of rotten flesh. The top floor conference room is completely burned out and the roof is scarred with dozens of pock marks from the suicide attackers' machine guns and from NATO bullets shot from a helicopter.
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The officials also described moments during the more than four-hour siege that suggest the team of nine suicide bombers were not as well disciplined as previously believed. A hotel employee said two suicide attackers entered the area around the pool, where hundreds of guests were having dinner, and yelled in Pashto that the guests should all leave. But immediately after, a third attacker appeared and started shooting at the same guests who had just been warned.
A police official showed a room where a suicide bomber blew himself up. The room belonged to an Afghan politician, but it was empty at the time, and the suicide bomber killed nobody except himself.
In other ways, though, the attackers appeared to have a plan and stuck to it. A hotel official described how one of the suicide bombers entered the hotel and immediately forced a hotel porter to lead three attackers to the roof through a complicated set of stairs. When they arrived, the attackers let the porter go and set up heavy machine guns they used to keep Afghan police and soldiers away from the hotel. They were only killed after the NATO helicopter arrived.
A NATO spokesman defended the action of the Afghan security forces, calling the raid Afghan-led and describing the helicopter as an "an intimidation factor."
"It enabled the Afghan security forces-led operation to be brought to a swifter conclusion," said Maj. Jason Waggoner, a NATO spokesman in Kabul.
But the senior Afghan police official said his men were finding it impossible to get anywhere close to the roof before the helicopter arrived. Three machine guns placed on the roof were keeping them away, as were the other attackers, who were roaming the halls by that point.
Eventually, better equipped Afghan Army commandos arrived, and Afghan officials say they used night-vision goggles. The police had cut power to the entire neighborhood, robbing the attackers of the ability to move through the hotel easily. The police officials who gave ABC News the tour of the hotel suggested that the power cut prevented the attackers from getting into some of the upper floor rooms, whose doors are electronic.
Still, the attackers were able to booby trap some of the rooms, and police officials said a second New Zealand special forces soldier was injured by a bomb hidden in one of the rooms.
Throughout the attack, police officials said, President Hamid Karzai was calling for updated every 10 to 20 minutes.
Witness: Chaos Inside the Hotel
Despite initial reports that the attackers managed to get through security checkpoints in front of the hotel, police officials today said all nine approached from a wooded hill behind the hotel. The nine attackers cut barbed wire and were able to get around to the side entrance, police said, near the swimming pool.
Jamshed Arian was eating at the hotel with hundreds of other Afghans. He said after the initial bullets, some guests thought they were celebratory, from a nearby wedding. But then the bullets started coming in faster, and the guests panicked. They all started running, knocking over tables and chairs.
"People were trying to jump over the fence with barbed wire," the 24-year-old said. "And people were getting stuck and falling down. I saw about three to four people breaking their legs."
"They were screaming and people were running and saying, 'Allah,' and there were kids crying," said Arian, who says he used to work for the U.S. military before joining the Afghan government.
Arian described how a group of people ran toward one of the hotel's outer walls. They took shelter there and hid for 2-3 hours, he said, until they felt safe enough to walk down to the main road.
Hotel Security Under Investigation
Afghan authorities are clearly upset that the attackers managed to breach one of the most secure buildings in the city. Police said today that the head of the department that provides security to VIPs and hotels such as the Intercontinental is under investigation.
The Intercontinental Hotel is a Kabul and Afghan icon. It has survived the same wars that Afghans have suffered from for 30 years: the Soviet invasion, the civil war, the Taliban, and the U.S.-led invasion.
Never before has it been attacked with such success.
The rare nighttime attack shocked much of this city. And it was a grim reminder that few places are truly safe from insurgents.
"People are grieved about it, no doubt. But there's no other option," Arian said. "They have to live here. This is our country. We can't go anywhere else."