KABUL – Guests swam for their lives after Taliban gunmen attacked a lakeside hotel in Afghanistan, killing at least nine people and taking 50 others hostage in a siege lasting several hours, according to reports.
At least five militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns attacked the exclusive Spozhmai hotel in the Qargha Lake recreation area around midnight local time on Thursday (3:30 p.m. ET) bursting into a private party and shooting dead hotel workers.
Many terrified guests jumped into the lake in darkness to escape the carnage, according to Afghan officials and local residents.
The local police chief told NBC News that all five insurgents were killed, along with at least nine others including three hotel guards, a policeman and five civilians – although the toll was expected to climb as authorities inspected the scene.
NBC News producer Cheryll Simpson reported via Twitter that heavy gunfire could be heard from the hotel, which is about six miles from the center of Kabul.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel was used for “prostitution, alcohol and immorality,” she reported.
Elite Afghan quick-response police backed by NATO troops had freed the remaining hostages and killed the gunmen in an operation that only began in earnest after sunrise to help security forces avoid unnecessary civilian deaths in night-time confusion.
Two NATO attack helicopters could be seen over the single-story hotel building and a balcony popular with guests for its sunset views.
'Crime against humanity'
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," said General Mohammad Zahir, head of the Kabul police investigation unit.
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.
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.
Targets include foreigners
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.
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.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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