The attack was the second in eight years at the 200-room Intercontinental Hotel, located on top of a hill. The Afghan carrier Kam Air said that six of its employees from Ukraine were killed, along with two from Venezuela.
The airline connects parts of the country where travel by road is increasingly impossible. It flies decrepit planes that sometimes bear the marks of their many previous lives: exit signs in Swahili; emergency instructions in Russian.
Kam Air canceled several flights on Sunday, according to Farid Peykar, the company’s vice president, who added that operations would be affected for days to come as the carrier tries to attend to the shock and concern of its staff members.
Among the dead were Afghans including Ahmad Farzan, a 34-year-old religious scholar turned peace activist. Mr. Farzan had left his three young daughters in Kandahar to come to Kabul to teach university classes and work at the country’s High Peace Council, a body exploring negotiations with the Taliban.
He often appeared as an analyst on local television, and he was critical of the difficult regional dynamics that choke any hopes of Afghan peace. But he had begun the new year with a message of hope, posting on his Facebook page:
“Life is beautiful
One day, one hour, one minute
will never return.
Then, please, stay away from violence
speak of love.”
Carnage and Confusion
The Taliban, usually quick to claim attacks, did not issue a statement declaring its responsibility for the assault on the Intercontinental Hotel until 14 hours after the siege began. At least two senior Afghan officials said the country’s intelligence agency had received reports that the Haqqani Network, a particularly brutal arm of the Taliban, had planned the attack.
“The attack was carried out by #Pakistan based Haqqani Terrorist Network,” Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan government’s chief executive, said on Twitter.
Mr. Danish, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said six assailants armed with grenades and AK-47s had entered the hotel through the kitchen around 9 p.m. on Saturday. Most of the rooms were occupied, with at least 100 guests of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology staying there for a conference.
Helicopters and drones circled above the hotel for hours while guests hid inside, many cowering under beds or in toilet stalls. Television footage showed guests trying to climb out of windows with the help of makeshift ropes. The elite forces that arrived at the scene rescued 160 guests, including 41 foreigners.
“Our investigation teams are searching and working room by room to find out exact casualties and information,” Mr. Danish said.
There was much confusion about when the operation ended. At first, the authorities declared the siege over around 9 a.m., saying all four assailants had been killed. But a New York Times reporter at the scene continued to hear explosions and gunfire, which security officials said was part of a “clearance operation.” When the Interior Ministry later said there had actually been six assailants, it became clear that two had been missed in their initial sweep.
“We tried to proceed with caution to avoid harming guests who hid in the rooms and locked the doors against the attackers,” said Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, commander of the Kabul Garrison, which is responsible for security in the capital.
A Barricaded City
In a room on the second floor of the hotel, Haji Saheb Nazar, 45, an employee of Afghan Telecom, spent the night huddled in a bathroom, afraid to leave. After sunrise, he spoke on his cellphone in a whisper, nearly in tears. “It’s still going on, upstairs and downstairs,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
“My family is so worried about me, and they keep calling me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on outside and how many of them are in the hotel. But if they are only four, why can’t police kill or arrest them?”
Mukhtar, 50, an Afghan who uses only one name, spent the night on the street outside the hotel, repeatedly calling his 24-year-old son, Zaiurahman, who works inside as a security guard. He got no answer until shortly after sunrise on Sunday.
“He said he was safe. I was really happy and cried,” Mukhtar said. “From midnight until now I’ve been waiting here, and now I just want to hug him and kiss him when he comes out.”
This is not the first time a popular hotel has been the target of an attack in a city that is increasingly barricaded, with blast walls that grow ever taller.
The Intercontinental was attacked by insurgents in 2011; 21 people were killed, including nine assailants, and many others wounded before the Afghan authorities, with substantial assistance from international military forces, managed to bring an end to the violence.
The hotel was once part of the chain of Intercontinental Hotels, but is now government owned.
Other hotels have also been targeted. The Serena Hotel, a luxury establishment in Kabul, has been struck three times, including an attack in 2014 that killed nine. In that assault, Taliban gunmen hid small pistols in the soles of their shoes to evade heavy security, then entered the restaurant and killed guests at close range, including a well-known Afghan journalist, his wife and all but one of his children. The events led to an unusual apology for what the Taliban called a “mistake.”
In 2015, the Park Palace hotel in downtown Kabul was the site of an attack that killed at least 15 people, including one American.
The latest Kabul attack comes amid intensifying violence around the country. In the northern province of Balkh, which has been at the center of a recent political showdown with the central government, at least 18 people were killed in an attack by the Taliban late Saturday, most of them members of a local police militia, officials there said.
Nazar Gul Sholgarai, a commander of the local militia, said the men had been lured to a dinner reception where a Taliban infiltrator had paved the way for the attack. He said a delegation had returned with samples of the meat served at the dinner to see if the men had been poisoned before they were shot.
“The bodies are still lying there, we haven’t buried them — we are chasing after the Taliban footsteps,” Mr. Sholgarai said. “The Taliban had come on six horses and four donkeys.”
Separately, in the western province of Herat, a Toyota Corolla carrying laborers struck a roadside bomb, leaving at least eight dead, said Abdul Ahad Walizada, a spokesman for the province’s police.
In the neighboring province of Farah, the Taliban have been tightening their presence around the provincial capital, Farah City, for weeks. The group has repeatedly staged attacks on the margins of the city, where militants’ efforts to advance are often deterred by airstrikes.
The security forces have suffered heavy casualties in the province over the past month, according to members of the provincial council. Late Saturday, a Taliban roadside bomb killed Col. Gulbahar Mujahid, the province’s deputy police chief, and wounded two of his officers as they were traveling in Humvees during an operation.
“The fighting was inside Farah City and it continued the whole night, which make us stay awake and terrified,” said Abdul Rahman, a resident of Farah City. “We thought the Taliban would be all around in the city in the morning, but we found security forces around. The bazaar is not functioning due to last night’s fighting and heavy security presence in the city.”