Gunmen trap foreigners in Kabul guesthouse

Gunmen stormed a downtown Kabul guesthouse late Wednesday, trapping several foreigners awaiting a planned concert and triggering a shootout with security forces, with fears of multiple casualties. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the siege on the Park Palace guesthouse, but it comes as the Taliban -- who have attacked such guesthouses in the past -- press their annual spring offensive. Around six hours after the siege began, police said two of up to five attackers had been killed, but at least one remained holed up in the guesthouse, while several hostages were evacuated. "There was a concert planned to take place inside the Park Palace tonight, with foreigners, mainly Indian and Turkish guests, invited," an Afghan intelligence official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "The attack started before the concert. We believe three to five gunmen managed to sneak into the guesthouse." A Park Palace employee, who barricaded himself in a room in the building, told AFP he heard several people screaming in the corridors as gunshots rang out. The guesthouse was due to host a concert by well-known Afghan classical singer Altaf Hussain, with several VIPs invited, when the gunfire started, the employee told AFP by telephone. The employee, who did not wish to be named, later managed to flee the Park Palace and said he saw at least five blood-covered bodies lying near the entrance. The attack bore chilling similarities to a raid on the Kabul Serena in March 2014, when four Taliban gunmen evaded security checks and ran amok in the luxury hotel's restaurant. The victims of that attack included veteran AFP reporter Sardar Ahmad, his wife, their five- and six-year-old children, another Afghan, two Canadians, an American and a Paraguayan. Roads leading up to the Park Palace, frequented by foreigners and international aid agency workers, were blocked by a large number of security personnel who arrived after the attack, according to an AFP photographer at the scene. - Heavy gunfire - Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said security forces had evacuated a "large number of guests". "Two attackers, including one with a suicide vest, have been killed. Another attacker is holed up on the second floor," he told AFP. Rahimi, who was at the scene of the ongoing attack, had earlier said security forces faced heavy gunfire from the assailants. Amar Sinha, the Indian ambassador in Kabul, told AFP his embassy was in contact with up to five Indian nationals stuck inside the guesthouse who were safe. The attack comes a day after a visit to Kabul by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who assured Afghanistan of Islamabad's full support in its battle against the Taliban, saying "the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be the friends of Pakistan". His unusually strong remarks are the latest sign of a thaw in the once-frosty relationship between the two countries. Afghan officials have frequently accused longtime nemesis Pakistan of harbouring and nurturing Taliban insurgents. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has actively courted Pakistan since coming to power in what observers say is a calculated gambit to pressure the insurgents to the negotiating table. The Taliban has been behind previous attacks on compounds and guesthouses occupied or frequented by foreigners, including at least two separate assaults in Kabul in November. Militants also launched a major attack on a compound of the International Organization for Migration in 2013. Along with guesthouses and compounds, the range of targets hit last year in Kabul included the Afghan capital's most prestigious hotel and a restaurant popular with Western diplomats. Taliban insurgents, who have waged a 13-year war to topple the US-backed Afghan government, launched their spring offensive across Afghanistan late last month, stepping up attacks on government and foreign targets. This year marks the first fighting season in which Afghan forces are battling the insurgents without the full support of US-led foreign combat troops. NATO's combat mission formally ended in December but a small follow-up force has stayed on to train and support local security personnel.