Inside the Taliban's 13-hour siege of a Kabul hotel
Survivors of the Taliban attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel gave harrowing accounts on Jan. 22 of the 13-hour weekend standoff that claimed 18 lives, including 14 foreigners.
The siege ended on Jan. 21 with Afghan Security Forces saying they had killed the last of six Taliban militants who stormed the hotel in suicide vests late the previous night, looking for foreigners and Afghan officials to kill.
More than 150 people were rescued or managed to escape, including 41 foreigners. Eleven of the 14 foreigners killed were pilots and employees of KamAir, a private Afghan airline. A statement by KamAir later said some of its flights were disrupted because of the attack.
Six Ukrainians, two Venezuelan pilots for KamAir, and a citizen of Kazakhstan were among those killed in the attack. German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr confirmed that a German was among those killed, without providing further details.
Americans are among the dead and wounded in the Taliban attack on #Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel on Jan. 20, #US State Department officials say on Tuesday. Eight Afghans, seven Ukrainians, a German, a Kazakh and two Venezuelans are among the 22 killed pic.twitter.com/etV9qrdRIo
— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) January 23, 2018
Mohammad Humayun Shams, the telecommunications director of eastern Laghman province, who was visiting Kabul and staying at the hotel, said he was able to escape by jumping into a tree from a hotel window as the attackers roamed the hallways, killing people.
"It was the worst night of my life," Shams said, adding that as he ran, he couldn't tell the attackers apart from the police because they were all wearing the same uniforms.
Two Greek pilots who were in Afghanistan to train local airline pilots said they survived the attack by hiding in their rooms — one inside a hollow he had cut in his mattress and the other in his bathtub.
Vassilis Vassiliou and Michalis Poulikakos were in the hotel restaurant when gunmen burst in through a kitchen service door. They dashed up to their rooms and hid, following emergency instructions they had been given.
"We overturned the mattresses and messed up the rooms, then opened the balcony doors to make it look as if we had escaped that way," Poulikakos told Greece's private Skai TV on Jan. 21.
"I hid in the bathtub. Nobody entered my room, I was very lucky and it all ended after nine hours," he said. "I was on the fourth floor. Vassilis was on the fifth and he was the only survivor on that floor, there were many more survivors on my floor."
Vassiliou said he spent 13 hours hidden under — and inside — his mattress, and managed to stay undiscovered even as gunmen used his balcony as a firing position.
"They broke down my door and burst in. I had managed to slip under the bed. There were three of them in the room, one went onto the balcony, the other shot at the other bed and lifted it up," he said.
When the gunmen had used up their ammunition, they set fire to the fifth floor and disappeared for about an hour and a half. Vassiliou went out to the balcony and realized that there was no escape there — he even came under fire from forces besieging the hotel.
"So I went back into the room and used a small pair of scissors to cut an opening for myself inside the mattress and remained there," he said. That protected him from the heat and the smoke from the fire burning outside his room.
"I don't know why but I was very calm. It was as if something told me that I would live," Vassiliou said.
Taliban's "Red Unit" on the march. (Photo released on official Taliban Telegram account)
He said he had shut down both his mobile phones to avoid being betrayed by their ringing, which led authorities to believe he had been killed. He remained in the room from about 9 p.m. to noon the next day, when the gunmen finally ran out of ammunition and left.
"I heard English being spoken and came out of my mattress," he said.
Vassiliou added that security forces took an inexplicably long time to reach his floor.
"Between 6 and 9 (a.m.), on the fifth floor, these four or five people were having fun, joking around," he said, referring to the attackers. "They would open every door, I heard voices, a couple of shots, and then laughter. They were undisturbed, nobody tried to stop them, and I think that was a big mistake."
On Jan. 21, Afghan Security Forces remained positioned on all the roads leading to the hotel, barring everyone from the area.
Among Afghans killed in the attack was a telecommunications official from western Farah province, Afghanistan's newly appointed consul general to the Pakistani city of Karachi and an employee of the High Peace Council, a commission created to facilitate peace talks.
Friedhelm Kraemer, the head of the Marianne and Emil Lux Foundation, a German charitable group, confirmed in an email that the woman killed was the head of an aid project. German regional newspaper Boeblinger Bote named her as 65-year-old Brigitte Weiler.
In an email to AP, Kraemer said she was a former German navy officer and nurse who would travel to Kabul at her own expense to deliver medicine, food and clothes to families in remote mountain villages in northern Afghanistan.
"Her tragic death tears a hole in the humanitarian aid work for people whom nobody else is helping," said Kraemer, whose organization supported the project.
Along with Shams, five other hotel guests, including a foreigner, managed to jump into the tree. From there, they climbed down to the ground and Shams called the police with his mobile.
They were told to stay put until the police came to take them away, hours later.
"I am still in shock ... in fact can't believe I am alive" he added.