KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban stormed a lakeside hotel just north of Kabul, killing three security guards, taking hostages and staging an hours-long gun battle with Afghan security forces, police said Friday.
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. And the strike so near to the capital was a reminder that the Taliban can still hit very close to the seat of government.
At least three suicide bombers - armed with machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives - killed the guards, then burst into the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Kabul police said in a statement. At least one policeman was also killed in the attack, said Kabul police chief, Mohammad Ayub Salangi.
By mid-morning Friday, an unknown number of militants were still fighting Afghan forces, supported by international troops. Black smoke was rising from the two-story hotel, according to Associated Press video. NATO helicopters circled overhead.
There were civilian casualties, but Afghan authorities did not have details because they have not been able to get inside the hotel.
"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."
Eighteen people, including women and children, have been rescued from the hotel and two of the attackers were dead, said Gen. Kadam Shah Shayem, an Afghan army commander in Kabul.
Four guests jumped out of a window at the two-story hotel and crouched in the lake to hide from the attackers, Shayem said.
"Our forces have surrounded the area," Shayem said. "There is still shooting. We are being very careful because there still are people - civilians - inside the hotel."
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 a short drive from the capital, is a popular place for well-to-do Afghans to spend a Thursday night — the beginning of the Afghan weekend — or for picnic excursions on a Friday when paddle boats 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 on its shore.
Compared with targets inside Kabul city, security at Qargha lake is light. While hotels do 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.
It has been particularly violent week in Afghanistan as insurgents have stepped up attacks against international forces. On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked U.S. and Afghan forces at a checkpoint in a busy market in the east, killing 21 people, including three U.S. soldiers. The same day, seven Afghan civilians were killed by a roadside bomb.
Those bombings came the day after two attacks in the south in which militants stormed a NATO military base and attacked a police checkpoint. U.S. troops were wounded in the attack on the NATO base, officials said. On Monday, three gunmen dressed in Afghan police uniforms killed one American service member and wounded nine others in Kandahar's Zhari district.
The fighting suggests that the Taliban are not planning to just "wait out" the international forces in Afghanistan until after 2014, when the majority of combat forces are scheduled to leave. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has to withdraw 23,000 American troops by the end of September, leaving about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.