KABUL: Heavily armed Taliban insurgents killed 18 people – most of them civilians – in an attack Friday on a lakeside hotel just north of Kabul, Afghan officials said.
Insurgents first killed the security guards at the hotel, then stormed inside it and began firing at guests who were dining. Some of the guests escaped while others were held hostage as the attackers battled Afghan security forces who rushed to the scene for the next 12 hours. Kabul police said all five attackers had been shot and killed by midday Friday, ending the standoff.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident, 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.
Fourteen Afghan civilians, three security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, said Mohammad Zahir, criminal director for Kabul police.
“The attackers entered the hotel and suddenly opened fire on families having a late dinner,” Zahir said. “The hotel was crowded. Some of the guests jumped from the window into the hotel yard. They were hiding under trees or any safe place they could find.
“Three of the guests jumped into the lake and hid in the water,” he added.
Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi said the five attackers – armed with machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives – stormed the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake before midnight on Thursday. By midmorning Friday, 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.
“It was around 11:20 p.m. last night when it all started,” said Mohammad Ghani, who was at the scene. “It got quiet for a couple of hours and then the fighting stated again.”
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam, but that was disputed by the Kabul police.
“The Taliban propaganda is saying that there was immoral activity there and that people were drinking alcohol,” said Zahir, the criminal director for the Kabul police. “That is totally wrong. These are people who had worked all week and had gone to the lake to have a restful dinner with their families. The view there is very good for relaxation. There is no alcohol.”
New face of insurgency?
Soldiers and police fanned out around the hotel at dawn, arriving in cars and armoured Humvee vehicles and taking cover behind trees flanking the lake and a nearby golf course.
Police said they wanted to stage a rescue without resorting to a frontal attack that could kill the hotel guests who had been taken hostage.
Qargha Lake is one of Kabul’s few options for weekend getaways. Restaurants and hotels that dot the shore are popular with Afghan government officials and businessmen, particularly on Thursday nights.
Guests at the Spozhmai must pass through security checks before entering the hotel, where tables with umbrellas overlook the water, but security is relatively light for a city vulnerable to militant attacks.
Violence across Afghanistan has surged in recent days, with three US soldiers and more than a dozen civilians killed in successive attacks, mostly in the country’s east where Nato-led forces have focused their efforts during the summer fighting months.
Nato commanders, halfway into the process of transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces, are racing through training for the Afghan army and police, including holding basic literacy classes for recruits.
Several well-planned assaults in Kabul in the past year have raised questions about whether the Taliban and their al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network allies have shifted tactics to embrace high-profile attacks targeting landmarks, foreigners and Afghanistan’s elite, extending a guerrilla war once primarily waged in the countryside.
Afghan insurgents attacked Kabul’s heavily protected diplomatic and government district on April 15 in an assault, eventually quelled by Afghan Special Forces guided by Western mentors, similar to one in September 2011.
Militants also killed eight people in an attack on the upscale Intercontinental hotel in Kabul in June 2011.
President Hamid Karzai told a special session of parliament on Thursday that attacks by insurgents against Afghan police and soldiers were increasing as most foreign combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.