South Asia

Spectre of collusion hangs over deadly Kabul hotel attack

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Media captionAfghan police have released video footage showing the interior of the Intercontinental Hotel

Nearly a week after suicide bombers and gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the BBC's Bilal Sarwary is given access to the site and discovers bloodied interiors, grieving staff, and questions over collusion between security forces and insurgents.

Shards of glass, dried blood-stains and bullet holes on the walls and ceilings were immediately apparent when stepping through the narrow, temporary entrance of the hotel.

Part of the hotel, including its grand lobby, had been under renovation for some time and so the management had closed the main entrance and provided a side entrance for guests.

This was lucky because without that, the casualties of last week's attack - which killed 22 people, including nine attackers, two policemen and 11 civilians - would have been far higher.

"If the front gate was open, scores of people would have been in the lobby - all would have been dead,'' one of the hotel managers told me. Afghan intelligence officials concur.

That the attackers managed to get into the hotel - despite layers of security - raises huge questions over the ability of the Afghan police and military to protect citizens and property once Western forces leave the country.

'Hearts broken'

I was guided to the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel, which bore the brunt of the attack. Even now, there is still a strong smell of burnt human flesh.

Image caption The suicide jacket used by one of the attackers lies discarded at the hotel

Militants had taken over these floors and the roof to set up sniper positions. At least two attackers had blown themselves up on the fourth floor.

On my way back down, I met some hotel staff mourning the loss of their colleagues. Four hotel employees - a cook, a flower seller and two security guards - were among those who died.

"Our eyes are red, our hearts broken," said Abdul Latif.

Another employee, Ajmal, points out that the attackers did not even spare Sher Wardak, a lovable character in his 80s popular with staff and guests.

"Anyone who had been to the Intercontinental knew him. He was a poor old man," Ajmal said.

Wardak was deaf. He mistook the commotion that followed the attack for a fire and ran to fetch water. The attackers simply shot him dead.

The grief was palpable but questions are being asked: could it possibly have been avoided?

Several officers in the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's spy agency, told the BBC they had warned the interior ministry about an ''imminent attack on the hotel and the nearby police academy''.

'Enemy infiltration'

Two senior interior ministry officials confirmed that there were intelligence reports. They said police had tightened security at the hotel's front gate as a result.

Image caption Parts of the hotel's fifth floor have been completely burnt out

But the attackers used the gate at the back of the hotel. The insurgents, most of them in their 20s, walked through crossing several police checkpoints. Some were wearing police and army uniforms.

The BBC has been told that several police officers on duty that day at the hotel are being questioned as to why they failed to detect the attackers.

Afghan officials are not ruling out the possibility that someone from the police or the security establishment could have helped them out.

''We are looking at everything. Sadly, the enemy has infiltrated our security forces," said an Afghan official.

A hotel employee said that closed-circuit TV footage showed that the attackers were very well acquainted with the hotel.

"They were well prepared for a long haul," said Kabul police Chief General Ayub Salangi. "They carried energy drinks, biscuits and water in their backpacks."

Recriminations

Gen Salangi believes that the the militants wanted the fight to last for at least two days and to imitate the siege and attacks on luxury hotels in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) in 2008.

Image caption Bullets used in the fighting can still be clearly seen

"We forced them to fight us, instead of killing people in the hotel," he said.

A senior official at the interior ministry told the BBC that the Haqqani network - a militant group linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda - had been trying for the last three years to attack the hotel.

He said that special counter-terrorism police units had been deployed there as a result - but they had been withdrawn some time ago. Meanwhile recriminations continue.

Police say that the number of casualties would have been reduced if if the army's commando units arrived on time.

"But when we called them, they asked 'hasn't Nato killed the insurgents?'"

The BBC has also learnt that a New Zealand special forces soldier was injured because of friendly fire during the attack.

''One of our police officers mistakenly shot him," an official said. "Luckily he was only injured slightly but he was obviously very angry. We apologised and explained that it was not intentional."

New Zealand special forces in the event appeared to have played a critical role in the fight, using shotguns to help their Afghan counterparts open doors that were locked.

If the Haqqani network did indeed carry out the attack, it will not be the first time they have hit such a soft target.

Some years ago, the network managed to get a VIP pass for one of its vehicles that was later used in an attack on the Serena Hotel.

Soon afterwards, militants opened fire on security forces in another part of the city. It was later found that they had used weapons that were issued by the interior ministry.

A top aide of the deputy minister in charge of security at the time was held for conspiring with the insurgents.

In April, a senior aide TO one of the deputy defence ministers was arrested on charges of facilitating the travel of a suicide attacker in an official ministry car.

Days later, a suicide vest was seized from the aide's house.

A senior Afghan official investigating the Intercontinental attack reluctantly admitted that militants have infiltrated Afghan security institutions.

"It's like a virus. We should treat it soon or it will spread," the official said.