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‘I ensured door was locked’: Indian who survived Kabul hotel siege recounts night of terror

Gunmen who raided the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul killed at least 22 people during a 12-hour standoff with security forces that ended Sunday.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2018 07:38 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Kabul hotel attack,Intercontinental hotel,Kabul hotel
Akash Raj was told the company was now putting up staffers at a five-star hotel for better safety.(Photo by arrangement)

Kabul is not an unfamiliar city for Akash Raj, who rejoined Afghan airline, Kam Air, after a gap of three years last month.

Raj, based in Dubai, regularly flies the route to Kabul. He usually stays at a company guest house. But last Saturday, when he landed in Kabul he was told there had been a change in policy: the company had decided to put up the crew in a five-star hotel because it thought a hotel was safer.

The 43-year-old native of Ernakulam, Kerala, didn’t have an inkling of what was in store for him when he checked into the Intercontinental Hotel.

“I was happy to be in a five-star hotel, the six-floor Intercontinental. I felt more safe as I checked in around 6:30 pm”, said Raj.

His room, No 420, was on the fourth floor. Many of his colleagues were on the second floor.

“An Afghan colleague and I had dinner in the room and around 8 pm, my friend left ”, he said over the phone from Dubai. Twenty minutes later as he was lying on the bed, flipping through TV channels, he heard gunshots.

“Incessant gunshots..., I can remember. But I didn’t realize it was from the hotel. They were heard from the distance, and I consoled myself: ‘This is Kabul. These are expected things’.”

Afghan security personnel take position at the rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between gunmen and Afghan security forces in Kabul on January 21, 2018. (AFP Photo)

Soon enough, Raj got a message from the friend he had dinner with, asking whether he was alright. The friend told hiim there seemed to be some trouble in the hotel and asked Raj to stay safe. Soon, he received a bunch of WhatsApp messages, informing him of a shootout in the hotel. “I just ensured the room was locked,” Raj said.

By then, the gunshots grew louder. The noise from the firing and exploding grenades was very loud. “Then the power went off. It was minus 5 degrees Celsius and the phone battery was about to drain. I did have a powerbank but not enough courage to move out from the corner of the room where I was hiding”, he said.

After some time, Raj mustered enough courage to crawl to a nearby table where he had placed his powerbank. “Then I was in touch with my family”, said Raj, who has two children.

“Past midnight, I could sense it myself (from the smoke), as well as from the messages I was receiving, that the attackers were setting the rooms on fire. “I was almost choking,” he said. “An Afghan colleague told me to open the balcony, somehow”.

Raj said he was afraid of making any noise. “Somehow I managed to open the balcony by early morning. I sat on the floor and took in some fresh air, and I couldn’t even think I was sitting on a floor when the temperature was minus 5”.

At 7:30 am, Afghan securitymen arrived at his room. “I was asked to leave the room and they took me to a camp office of United Nations. By then, I was in touch with the Indian embassy in Kabul.” Raj got to know that some of his colleagues who were staying the hotel had been killed.

Gunmen who raided the hotel killed at least 22 people during a 12-hour standoff with security forces that ended Sunday, Afghan authorities said. Of those killed, at least 14 were foreign nationals, said Najib Danish, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior on Sunday. Four gunmen were also killed by Afghan security forces responding to the attack.

First Published: Jan 22, 2018 19:54 IST