After nearly 13 hours, a stand-off at a lakeside hotel outside of Kabul has ended, but not before it left close to 20 people dead and hundreds of guests held temporary hostage by Taliban gunmen.
At least three suicide bombers armed with machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives vests stormed the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake on Thursday night, agencies report, and engaged in a lengthy gun battle with the Afghan security forces and NATO troops.
"There is evidence of the very, very long siege, the 13 hour siege that went on here, all over the grounds," said Al Jazeera's Jennifer Glasse, reporting from the scene. "There are spent shells everywhere. We heard explosions and sustained gunfire for hours."
"We believe that 18 people have been killed, among them three security guards and a policeman. We are told by one government spokesman that there were between five and seven attackers," she said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, claimed no civilians were killed and all the casualties were individuals connected to the government.
"The mujahideen … attacked a … hotel that was used by foreigners for their illicit fun and having parties. It was a special hotel for Afghan government officials and foreigners," said the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.
The assault is the latest in a serie of brazen attacks in or on the outskirts of Kabul, which highlights the confidence and capabilities of Taliban fighters to operate in the Afghan capital, even in what are ultimately small-scale assaults that end in the death of their fighters.
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Agence France-Presse reports:
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.
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"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.
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