Heavily armed Taliban fighters have killed 18 people – most of them civilians – in a 13-hour assault on a lakeside hotel just north of Kabul, Afghan officials have said.
The fighters first killed the security guards outside the Spozhmai hotel on Lake Qargha on Friday, then stormed inside and began firing at guests who were dining. Some of the guests escaped while others were held hostage as the attackers battled, officials said.
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Sediq Sediqqi, an Afghan interior ministry spokesman, said all five attackers had been killed by midday on Friday, ending the standoff.
Fourteen Afghan civilians, three security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, said Mohammad Zahir, criminal director for Kabul police.
“We believe that 18 people have been killed, among them three security guards and a policeman,” said Al Jazeera’s Jennifer Glasse, reporting from the scene.
“There is evidence of the very, very long siege, the 13 hour siege that went on here, all over the grounds. There are spent shells everywhere. We heard explosions and sustained gunfire for hours,” she said.
Some of the dead fighters were wearing suicide vests, but none of them detonated before being killed, officials told Al Jazeera.
The attackers had earlier taken hostages, including women and children. Afghan police backed by NATO troops freed at least 35 of them during their operation to end the siege, officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, earlier saying it had killed up to 15 people.
But the group claimed no civilians were killed and all the casualties were individuals connected to the government.
The Taliban said they had “separated out any innocent civilians and put them in a safe room,” our correspondent reported.
The Taliban assault began around 11:30pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday, said Zahir.
“Insurgents armed with RPG rockets, and heavy and light weapons” attacked the Spozhmai Hotel, he said earlier on Friday.
The gunmen, some armed with rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, attacked the hotel during the night, triggering a gunbattle in the darkness, police said.
Afghan security forces launched their operation to end the siege at around 5:30am (01:00GMT) on Friday, though fighting went on for several hours until around midday.
“The area under attack is about 45 minutes outside Kabul in a lake area where many Afghan families come to spend the weekend,” our correspondent said earlier.
“This is a very bold attack coming, as it has, during the weekend.
“As with many of the [recent] attacks, it isn’t what damage they can do, but what they can do to undermine the sense of security around Kabul.”
While claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban said wealthy Afghans and foreigners used the hotel to have “wild parties” in the lead up to the Friday religious day holiday.
“Our mujahideen [holy warriors] last night attacked this hotel because high-profile people from embassies, ISAF and the Kabul administration gather here every Thursday for wild parties, drinking and prostitution,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told AFP news agency.
“The Taliban has claimed responsibility saying that they attacked this hotel because it was frequented by foreigners and the un-Islamic practices that go on here. The government spokesman said that is nonsense and that this is a place where Afghan families come to,” our correspondent said.
The hotel assault will heighten fears about security as NATO prepares to hand responsibility to Afghan forces and recall the vast majority of its 130,000 combat troops.