KABUL, Afghanistan -- Kamel Khan, 32, a businessman, was chatting with two friends at the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel poolside terrace Tuesday night when he heard a burst of gunfire and looked up. A man carrying a machine gun, with an ammunition belt across his chest and a knapsack on his back, was standing a few feet away.
"He stared at all of the guests like he wanted to kill us, and he had enough bullets to do it. But for some reason, he just turned and kept going," Mr. Khan said. After a moment of shock, Mr. Khan and dozens of other guests made a dash for the garden wall and fled downhill, while heavy shooting erupted behind them.
About the same time, Maulvi Mohammed Orsaji, head of the Takhar Provincial Council, was dining with a judge in the hotel's formal dining room as several other gunmen entered and started shooting. Both officials were visiting Kabul for a governor's conference scheduled for today and Friday.
"I got down and hid behind a pillar, and I stayed there for the next five hours," the shaken, elderly cleric recounted Wednesday morning. "There was shooting and explosions. By the time it was over, both my guard and my friend the judge were dead."
"I was a fighter in the [anti-Soviet] jihad when I was young," Mr. Orsaji continued. "But I never saw such a wild kind of attack in my life."
The siege of the Intercontinental by a squad of Taliban suicide bombers and heavily armed gunmen was one of the most sophisticated and audacious attacks in the capital in years. It took the lives of 11 civilians, including hotel staff and visitors, and wounded a dozen more, officials said.
Eight assailants were killed, officials said. Some are believed to have blown themselves up as part of the attack, while others were shot inside the hotel or on its grounds. The last two assailants were shot dead by NATO helicopter gunships as they stood on the roof shortly before dawn, officials said.
The national intelligence police said no foreigners were among the civilian dead, but other officials offered conflicting information. The Interior Ministry said a Spaniard was slain, and police officials said a pilot from Turkey and a visitor from France had been killed.
The U.S. Embassy said a number of Americans had been dining or staying at the hotel, but all were accounted for. The Canadian Embassy said reports of a Canadian diplomat's death were untrue.
The assault shattered all semblance of security in the Afghan capital at a critical time. President Barack Obama recently announced a gradual withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and President Hamid Karzai's government is preparing to assume full responsibility for security by 2014.
Kabul is one of seven cities or regions slated for an early transition to Afghan defense leadership, beginning next month. Officials said the Taliban attack was clearly intended to sabotage the transition and prove that Afghan forces cannot protect the general population, but they vowed not to allow the insurgents to derail the turnover.