KABUL: Heavily armed Taliban insurgents killed 17 people, most of them civilians, in an attack today on a lakeside hotel just north of Kabul, Afghan officials said.
Insurgents battled Afghan security forces for about 12 hours while they held hotel guests hostage inside the hotel. Kabul police said the fifth and final attacker was killed at midday today, ending the standoff.
It was the latest in a string of attacks this week that suggest the insurgent group is pushing hard with its summer offensive rather than waiting for international forces to draw down.
The strike at the hotel, about a half-hour drive from the capital, was a reminder that the Taliban can still hit very close to the seat of the Afghan government.
Twelve Afghan civilians, four security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, said Gen Kadam Shah Shayem, the Afghan National Army commander for Kabul.
Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi said five attackers — armed with machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives — stormed the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake before midnight yesterday.
By midmorning, militants were still fighting Afghan forces, supported by international troops. Gunfire pierced the quiet surroundings of the lake area. Black smoke was rising from the two-story hotel in a wooded area on the bank of the lake. NATO helicopters circled overhead. Salangi said.
In return, authorities killed all seven militants, he said. Earlier, the police chief had said that there were five militants. Authorities stormed the hotel as soon as the siege ended to find out whether there were any civilians holed up.
By the end of the siege, police had rescued about 50 civilians held hostage in the hotel, according to Salangi.
Police said they found burqas in the vehicle the attackers used to bring in explosives to the hotel, an indication that some were dressed as women. A burqa is an outer garment worn by Muslim women to cover their bodies.
Terrified civilians fled when the gunmen struck the Spozhmai hotel around midnight Thursday local time, with some jumping into a nearby lake to avoid the bloodshed. The hotel was hosting an outdoor dinner that drew a large number of guests when the attack occurred.
"It was around 11.20 pm last night when it all started," said Mr Mohammad Ghani, who was at the scene. "It got quiet for a couple of hours and then the fighting stated again."
Four guests jumped out of a window at the two-story hotel and crouched in the lake to hide from the attackers, Shayem said.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam.
The hotel, situated on a man-made lake, is a popular place for well-to-do Afghans to spend Thursday night, the beginning of the Afghan weekend, or for picnic excursions on a Friday when paddleboats and horse rides are on offer.
Though international workers do go to Qargha lake, Afghans make up the majority of the clientele at the hotels and kebab shops along its shore.
Security at the lake is light compared with targets inside the Afghan capital. While hotels at the lake have armed guards, there are no massive blast walls and security cordons that surround government and military buildings in Kabul.
The hotel was a soft target compared with the attacks insurgents have launched inside the city in recent years, including taking over construction sites and firing down on embassies and storming the tightly secured Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul last summer.
The week has been particularly violent in Afghanistan, as insurgents stepped up attacks against international forces.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked US and Afghan forces at a checkpoint in a busy market in the east, killing 21 people, including three US soldiers. The same day, seven Afghan civilians were killed by a roadside bomb.