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AFGHANISTAN

Karzai calls off Norway visit over riot fears

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has postponed a visit to Norway fearing a violent backlash at home over an anti-Islam film that sparked riots which killed the US ambassador in Libya, officials said on Thursday.

Karzai calls off Norway visit over riot fears
Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg met Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Chigago in May (Photo: Harald Kvam/NTB Scanpix)

The assault, which left four American diplomats dead in the Libyan city of Benghazi was triggered by a mob angered by a film deemed offensive to Islam that Afghanistan has condemned as "insulting".

In Yemen protesters also stormed the American embassy complex but were driven out by police, an AFP reporter said. In Egypt angry crowds pelted the US embassy in Cairo.

"He (Karzai) has cancelled his trip for the time being. He won't go, he's worried about possible riots over the release of the film," a presidential aide told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"He prefers to stay at home at such a critical time," the official added.   

In Norway the foreign ministry confirmed that Karzai's arrival had been delayed because the president felt the need to be in Afghanistan after recent events.

Protests are expected to take place after weekly prayers in Afghanistan on Friday.

Karzai and US President Barack Obama discussed overnight how to "ensure that the circumstances that led to the violence in Libya and Egypt do not pose a threat to US forces or Afghans", the White House said.

Kabul said both men condemned the film and that Karzai expressed sympathy for the US deaths in Libya. It also said Karzai had a similar discussion with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The crudely produced low-budget movie, whose director goes by the name Sam Bacile and is believed to be Israeli American, pokes fun at the Prophet Muhammad, showing him sleeping with women and touching on themes of paedophilia and homosexuality.

The film has been promoted by controversial US pastor Terry Jones, who has drawn protests for burning the Koran and vehemently opposing the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

Afghanistan is a devout Muslim country where anything seen as insulting to Islam is taken very seriously, often with a violent response.

Riots killed around 40 people earlier this year after US troops burnt copies of the Koran on a military base.

In an "emergency message" posted on its website, the US embassy in Kabul warned against possible protests in the coming days.

"We wish to remind US citizens that past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity. US citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible," it advised.

Around 117,000 NATO troops are based in Afghanistan helping Karzai's government put down a 10-year Taliban insurgency.

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AFGHANISTAN

Norwegian troops battle Taliban gunman in siege at luxury Kabul hotel

Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Kabul and killed at least six people including a Ukrainian, sparking a 12-hour battle with Afghan forces backed by Norwegian troops that left terrified guests scrambling to escape.

Norwegian troops battle Taliban gunman in siege at luxury Kabul hotel
An Afghan security personnel stands guard as smoke billows from the Intercontinental Hotel during a fight between gunmen and Afghan security forces in Kabul on Sunday. PHOTO: WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP
Officials said the death toll from the attack on the six-storey Intercontinental Hotel, claimed by the Taliban, could rise as staff were still checking rooms.
 
The overnight assault on the hilltop hotel overlooking the Afghan capital, which ended Sunday, sparked dramatic scenes as guests climbed down bedsheets tied to balconies to escape. One lost his grip and fell in television footage by Afghanistan's Tolo News station, which also showed black smoke and flames billowing from the hotel.
 
Special forces were lowered by helicopters during the night onto the roof of the landmark 1960s building. Afghan security forces killed all six attackers, the interior ministry said. Earlier the ministry had put the number of attackers at four.
 
They were aided by Norwegian troops, Norwegian military officials told public broadcaster NRK. Norway has helped train Afghan elite forces since 2007.
 
“Five Afghans and one foreigner have been killed,” interior ministry deputy spokesman Nasrat Rahimi told AFP Sunday, adding around 150 people were rescued.
 
“The body of the foreigner, a woman, was recovered from the sixth floor as the last attacker was being killed,” he added.
 
Ukrainian foreign ministry official Vasyl Kyrylych confirmed that one of its citizens was among the dead and said the Ukrainian consul was flying to Kabul.
 
Najib Danish, another interior ministry spokesman, said 41 foreigners had been rescued and warned the death toll could rise as authorities were still checking each room. At least six people were wounded, the interior ministry has said.
 
It was not clear how many people had been inside the hotel. The CEO of Afghan airline Kam Air, Captain Samad Usman Samadi, said 42 of its personnel had been there — at least 16 of whom are still missing.
 
“We fear for their lives,” he told AFP.
 
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault via email. The attack followed security warnings in recent days to avoid hotels and other locations frequented by foreigners in war-torn Kabul, one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for civilians.
 
“We are hiding in our rooms. I beg the security forces to rescue us as soon as possible before they reach and kill us,” one guest, who did not want to be named, told AFP by telephone during the siege.
 
His phone has been switched off since then.
 
'Fleeing like crazy'
 
Officials said four gunmen burst into the hotel, which is not part of the global InterContinental chain, on Saturday night, opening fire and taking dozens of people hostage.
 
Afghan Telecom regional director Aziz Tayeb, who was one of dozens of people at the hotel attending an IT conference, said he saw the attackers enter.
 
“Everything became chaotic in a moment. I hid behind a pillar and I saw people who were enjoying themselves a second ago screaming and fleeing like crazy, and some of them falling down, hit by bullets,” Tayeb told AFP.
 
Local resident Abdul Sattar said he had spoken by phone to friends who are hotel staff and had been trapped inside.
 
“Suddenly (militants) attacked the dinner gathering… (then) they broke into the rooms, took some people hostage and they opened fire on some of them,” he told AFP.
 
Rahimi said the attackers were armed with light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades when they stormed the hotel, a popular venue for weddings, conferences and political gatherings.
 
Security in Kabul has been ramped up since May 31 when a massive truck bomb killed some 150 people and wounded around 400 — mostly civilians.
 
 Devastating attacks
 
But the resurgent Taliban and Islamic State are both scaling up their assaults on the city, with multiple devastating attacks in recent weeks.
 
The attack on the Intercontinental was just one of several bloody assaults on Sunday. In a village in the northern province of Balkh, Taliban militants went from house to house in the middle of the night, pulling police from their homes and shooting them dead. At least 18 officers were killed, deputy police chief Abdul Raziq Qaderi told AFP. In Herat in the west at least eight civilians were killed when a car hit a Taliban-planted roadside mine, officials there said.
 
The last major attack on a high-end hotel in Kabul was in March 2014 when four teenage gunmen raided the Serena, killing nine people including AFP journalist Sardar Ahmad.
 
The overnight siege is not the first time the Intercontinental has been targeted: in 2011 a suicide attack claimed by the Taliban killed 21 people there, including 10 civilians.
 
Danish said authorities were questioning how the attackers got past the hotel's security, which was taken over by a private company three weeks ago.
 
“We will investigate it,” he said.
 
A hotel employee told AFP that as he fled the hotel he saw the new security guards running for their lives.
 
“They didn't do anything, they didn't attack. They had no experience,” the man said on condition of anonymity.