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Kabul hotel assault leaves 19 dead

Taliban gunmen have stormed one of Afghanistan's premier hotels, sparking a five-hour battle that left 19 people dead, including all eight attackers.

Militants who had managed to penetrate the Inter-Continental Hotel's security measures began the attack around 10pm on Tuesday, on the eve of a conference about the transfer of security responsibilities.

After hours of fighting, two Nato helicopters opened fire at about 3am on the roof of the five-storey hotel where militants had taken up positions.

US army major Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said the helicopters killed three gunmen and Afghan security forces clearing the hotel worked their way up to the roof and engaged the insurgents.

A final explosion occurred a few hours later when one of the bombers who had been hiding in a room blew himself up long after ambulances had carried the dead and wounded from the hotel, which sits on a hill overlooking the capital.

The strike against the Inter-Continental was one of the biggest and most complex to have occurred in Kabul and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the centre of power at a time when US officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.

It occurred less than a week after President Barack Obama announced the beginning of an American withdrawal and the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans in several areas, including most of Kabul province.

Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security, said eight suicide attackers were involved and all had either blown themselves up or been killed by Afghan or coalition forces.

The 11 civilians killed included a judge from an unnamed province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mr Mashal said. He said no foreigners were killed, but two were among 14 people wounded in the attack. He did not disclose their nationalities.

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