A Taliban suicide assault on a lakeside hotel near Kabul killed 16 people, including women, the Afghan interior ministry spokesman said Friday.
Those killed in the 12-hour attack on the Spozhmai Hotel on Qargha lake, a beauty spot popular with picnickers, included 12 civilians, three hotel guards and a police officer, Sediq Sediqqi said.
Heavily armed gunmen stormed the hotel on Thursday just before midnight. The assault underscores the potency of the Taliban even after over a decade of efforts by NATO and Afghan forces to repel them.
Earlier on Friday, Afghan security forces freed 35-40 hostages taken by Taliban insurgents in the attack, the interior ministry said.
Militants armed with automatic weapons and rockets attacked the hotel overnight, taking hostages and sparking gun battles with Afghan security forces who were supported by NATO forces.
Around eight hours after the assault began, Sediqqi told AFP Afghan forces had freed between 35 and 40 hostages, including women and children.
Just hours before the assault, President Hamid Karzai warned that attacks against local police and soldiers were increasing as they prepare to take over security when NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
Four guests jumped out of a window at the two-story hotel and crouched in the lake to hide from the attackers, said General Kadam Shah Shayem, a commander with the Afghan National Army in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said they attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking and participating in other activities banned by Islam, The Associated Press reported.
The U.S.-led coalition was supporting Afghan security forces who responded to the attack, the coalition said. An AP photographer at the scene said coalition helicopters were circling over the site.
The incident again highlighted the ability of the Afghan Taliban to stage high-profile attacks even as NATO nations prepare to withdraw most combat troops by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces to take the lead against the insurgency.
Authorities are about midway through a transition process during which security responsibility is being handed from NATO-led foreign troops to Afghan forces.
“This is a crime against humanity because they targeted children, women and civilians picnicking at the lake. There wasn’t even a single soldier around there,” General Mohammed Zahir, head of the Kabul police investigation unit, told Reuters.
A pall of smoke hung over the hotel and television pictures showed people wading out of the lake onto a balcony and clambering over a wall to safety.
Police and soldiers fanned out around the hotel at dawn, arriving in cars and armored Humvee vehicles and taking cover behind trees flanking the lake and a nearby golf course.
Resident Nasir Ahmad said his brother, who worked in the Spozhmai hotel, the most exclusive of several around the scenic lake, told him many people had been killed.
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 hotel security 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 U.S. 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.
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.