Heavily armed Taliban insurgents killed 18 people — most of them civilians — in an attack yesterday 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 over the next 12 hours. Kabul police said all five attackers had been shot and killed by midday yesterday, 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.”
Kabul police chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi said the five attackers — armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives — stormed the Spozhmai hotel on Qargha Lake before midnight on Thursday. By midmorning yesterday, the 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 about 11:20pm last night when it all started,” said Mohammed Ghani, who was at the scene. “It got quiet for a couple of hours and then the fighting started again.”
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the militants attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam, but that was disputed by Kabul police.
“The Taliban propaganda is saying that there was immoral activity there and that people were drinking alcohol,” Zahir said. “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.”
The hotel, situated on a man-made lake, is a popular place for well-to-do Afghans to spend Thursday night — the beginning of the Afghan weekend — or for picnic excursions on a Friday when 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 along its shore.