By Alistair Scrutton
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan police sifted through one of Kabul's landmark hotels room by room on Wednesday for any more casualties or security threats after an overnight assault by Taliban suicide bombers killed 10 Afghan civilians and police.
The eight attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, stormed the heavily guarded Intercontinental hotel, frequented by Westerners and VIPs, before a NATO helicopter killed the remaining insurgents in a final rooftop battle that ended a raid lasting more than five hours.
After several explosions, attackers entered the hotel late on Tuesday and made their way to the ballroom, a hotel receptionist said.
Some carried tape recorders playing Taliban war songs and shot at anyone they saw. Guests jumped from second and third floors to escape, the receptionist told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
"The police are still searching room by room to see if there are any casualties or any threats," Kabul police chief Ayoub Salangi told reporters.
Eight other people were wounded in the attack, according to an Interior Ministry statement. Two policemen were among the 10 dead.
There have been insurgent attacks at a hotel, guesthouse and a supermarket in Kabul over the past year, although the capital has been relatively quiet compared with the rest of the country.
The timing of the attack, which began late on Tuesday, carried hallmarks of other raids meant to show the Taliban still retain the ability to strike at will despite gains made by NATO-led troops over the past 18 months.
Some guests included provincial governors attending a conference due to begin later on Wednesday over the transition of civil and military responsibility from foreign forces to Afghans, two Afghan officials said.
The raid also came a week after U.S. President Barack Obama
announced plans for an initial withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, with another 23,000 to leave by the end of 2012, sparking concerns the Afghan security forces were not ready to take over.
In the early hours of Wednesday, some foreign hotel guests were driven away in diplomatic vehicles while others waited on a street outside the hotel as the sun rose over Kabul.
Reuters witnesses heard at least seven blasts over the course of more than five hours, with bursts of gunfire heard during the late-night attack.
Some insurgents were shot dead by police while others blew themselves up.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said several fighters from the Islamist group had attacked the hotel.
Mujahid, who spoke to Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, said heavy casualties had been inflicted.
The Taliban often exaggerate the number of casualties in attacks against Western and Afghan government targets.
One blast was heard at the start of the attack and then three more at least an hour later, one of the Reuters witnesses said. Bursts of gunfire were heard over the same period and flares lit up the sky over the hotel.
Reuters television footage showed police firing tracer rounds into the air as other officers moved through the hotel.
Power was cut in the hotel and in surrounding areas after the attack.
The hotel, built on a hillside in western Kabul with heavy fortifications all around it, is often used for conferences and by Westerners visiting the city.
Violence has flared across Afghanistan since the Taliban announced the start of a spring offensive at the beginning of May.
The last big attack on a major Kabul hotel used by foreigners was in January 2008, when several Taliban gunmen killed six people in a commando-style raid on the nearby Serena hotel.
The increase in violence comes as NATO-led forces prepare to hand security responsibility to Afghans in seven areas from next month at the start of a gradual transition process that will end with all combat foreign troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The two-day conference to discuss the transition process was due to begin in a government building in the center of the city on Wednesday. Officials said the conference would go on despite the attack.
Violence across Afghanistan in 2010 was already at its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Omar Sobhani and Ahmad Masood; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani)