Taliban militants armed with guns and rockets attacked a lakeside hotel near Kabul overnight, seizing dozens of hostages including women and children and killing at least 16 people.
The four or five attackers were also killed in the brazen assault on the Spozhmai Hotel that will exacerbate fears that insecurity is spiralling as NATO combat troops prepare to exit the Afghan war in 2014.
Around 12 hours after the attack began interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the assault ended with the death of the last militant. A number of the hostages were freed earlier by security forces.
On a balcony overlooking the lake, a birthday cake lay half eaten on a table surrounded by a dozen empty chairs, while nearby sprawled the bloodied body of a young man shot repeatedly in the chest. Like many of the victims, he was dressed in Western clothes, an AFP reporter said.
It was the latest in a series of sensational commando-style insurgent attacks that have targeted Kabul, the most heavily protected part of the war-torn country. They typically take hours to quell and strike fear into the public.
The Spozhmai is a haunt of the wealthy Kabul elite and on Thursday nights — the start of the Afghan weekend — is usually packed with families and mixed groups of men and women.
The Taliban attacked at around 11:30 pm (1900 GMT), when a group armed with rockets and Kalashnikov rifles stormed the hotel, said police.
At least one of the attackers detonated an explosive suicide vest, said Mohammad Zahir, the head of Kabul police criminal investigation department.
Witness Sharifullah, 30, had gone to the Spozhmai for dinner with a friend.
“I saw three armed men entering the area where people, families, had gathered. Moments later the shooting broke out, people panicked and started screaming,” he told AFP.
“I threw myself in a ditch but saw bullets hitting a father, his son and wife who were sitting around a table near me.
“I am not sure if they survived,” he added.
The standoff ended at 11:00 am, Hashmat Stanikzai, the chief spokesman for Kabul police told AFP, saying that all five attackers had died. The interior ministry confirmed only four attackers, but also said all the gunmen had died.
The ministry said 16 people, including women, were killed by the attackers. Twelve of them were civilians, three were hotel guards and one was a police officer, spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
The Taliban, who are leading a bloody insurgency against Karzai’s Western-backed government, told AFP that the hotel was attacked because every Thursday there were “wild parties, drinking and prostitution”.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid accused foreign diplomats, and members of the US-led NATO mission and the Kabul government of attending the Thursday gatherings at the hotel.
Qargha lies around 10 kilometres (six miles) from central Kabul and its pleasant weather and greenery make it a popular picnic spot for daytrippers from the capital. The lake is surrounded by hotels, restaurants and wedding halls.
Sediqqi said at least 40 civilian hostages taken by the militants were freed before the end of the standoff.
A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed that its troops and Afghan security forces had responded to the assault.
NATO intends to withdraw its 130,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, exiting the costly, decade-long war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and more than 3,050 foreign soldiers.
President Hamid Karzai warned Thursday that attacks on Afghan police and soldiers were increasing, saying that 20 to 25 personnel were being killed every day.
He admitted his government and its Western allies had failed to bring peace to Afghanistan, which has suffered almost continuous conflict for the past three decades, saying “our land has not been secured, our homes, our people are not safe”.
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked a joint Afghan-NATO patrol in the eastern city of Khost, close to the Pakistan border, killing 21 people including three US soldiers.
Hotels, guest houses, government buildings, embassies and military bases in Kabul have been a frequent target of commando-style insurgent attacks.
In April, militants launched coordinated attacks on government offices, embassies and foreign bases in Kabul in the biggest assault on the Afghan capital in 10 years of war.