By Mohammad Aziz
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security officials met on Monday to draw up a response to a deadly attack on Kabul's Hotel Intercontinental that exposed once again how vulnerable the capital remains to militant assaults.
Even in a city long inured to violence, the attack by gunmen dressed in army uniforms has caused shock, with questions raised about how they were able to penetrate security at one of the most prominent landmarks in Kabul.
The smoke-blackened hotel, on a hill overlooking the city, remained blocked off on Monday and even the final casualty toll from the attack, which began on Saturday night and was claimed by Taliban insurgents, remains unclear.
Officially, the government says at least 19 people were killed but people in the security system say the real figure is certainly above 30 and probably many more. The Taliban are seeking to re-impose Islamic rule after their 2001 ouster at the hands of U.S.-led troops.
Many of the victims were Ukrainian air crew of Kam Air and their deaths may raise questions over the willingness of foreign technical specialists to continue to work for Afghan companies who cannot provide the high levels of security provided by the United Nations or foreign embassies.
Airlines provide a vital link between major cities in a country where travel by road is often dangerous and unreliable.
"Many Ukrainian air technicians work in Afghanistan and all those killed worked for the Afghan airline Kam Air and lived in the Intercontinental Hotel," Ukraine's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Viktor Nikityuk, who is based in neighboring Tajikistan, told Ukrainian television.
He confirmed that seven Ukrainians had been killed and said a consular official would be visiting Kabul to organize repatriation of their bodies.
Many details of what happened in the attack, which began at around 9 p.m. on Saturday, remain unclear and interest is likely to focus on the private security company which took over protection duties three weeks ago.
According to a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the five gunmen got through an initial checkpoint on the approach road to the hotel before reaching a second checkpoint close to a car park near the hotel entrance.
At that point, the official said they appeared to have shot the checkpoint guards and made their way around the back of the building and into the kitchen before beginning the attack.
Once inside, they went through the ground and first floors, opening fire on staff and guests before moving quickly to the upper levels of the six-floor building.
Hassibullah, who was working in the hotel bakery, said he ran upstairs to a fifth-floor room and barricaded himself in with around 12 people, including guests, when the firing started. He survived a jump to the ground, suffering two broken legs, a broken back and internal injuries.
Speaking from a hospital bed, he said the attackers began firing into the door, which the guests had blocked with piled-up furniture when the lights went out and he took his only chance.
"The only thing I could do was open the window and jump out," he said.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)