By AMIR SHAH and DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Heavily armed Taliban gunmen stormed a lakeside hotel near Kabul, sending terrified guests jumping from windows or into a lake to try to escape the onslaught. Eighteen people were killed in the 12-hour rampage, their bullet-riddled bodies strewn on carpets, on the lawn and a blood-smeared patio.
The attack, which ended at midday Friday, was a gruesome reminder of the Taliban's determination to scare the Afghan people and undermine efforts to stabilize the nation as U.S.-led forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.
The insurgents arrived shortly before midnight at the Spozhmai hotel, situated in a wooded area on the banks of the turquoise-colored Qargha Lake, where Afghan families often go to relax and forget about the war.
The gunmen — toting machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives — first killed the hotel's security guards, then pushed their way inside and began firing at guests who were having late-night meals. Gunfire rang out for hours and black smoke rose from the two-story hotel as NATO helicopters circled overhead.
The attack turned the normally placid hotel into a bloody scene of bodies and half-eaten food. One man with a gunshot wound to his torso was found dead under a tree. The bodies of two other men in blood-stained clothes were slumped over one another in the grass. The body of one of the attackers was lying on a blood-stained stone patio.
Some of the guests escaped while others were held hostage as the attackers battled more than 100 Afghan security forces who rushed to the scene with support from some coalition troops. The forces helped rescue more than 40 guests from the hotel.
There were differing accounts about the number of attackers. The Afghan police special forces' commander, Brig. Gen. Sayed Mohammad Roshan, said seven gunmen had been shot and killed, while the Taliban claimed only four of their fighters were involved.
Mohammad Qasim, who survived the attack, said he went to the reception desk at the hotel to tell the manager that he suspected militants had entered the building.
"Before I finished talking with the manager, they fired on us," Qasim said. The manager "hid himself behind his desk, but around three to four other guys who were guards and waiters were killed by the attackers."
Windows were shattered. Wicker chairs and tables were overturned on the lawn. A sugar bowl, chipped by flying bullets was lying on a red carpet next to a teapot and a baby bottle filled with milk. One table still had plates of French fries, salad and glasses half-filled with tea.
"Some of the guests jumped from the window into the hotel yard. They were hiding under trees or any safe place they could find," said Mohammad Zahir, criminal director for Kabul police. "Three of the guests jumped into the lake and hid in the water."
An Associated Press photograph showed the three, who survived the attack, clinging to a stone wall that kept them hidden from the gunmen.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-led international military coalition and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul all condemned the attack, issuing statements accusing the Taliban of deliberately targeting civilians. Fourteen Afghan civilians, three security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, Afghan police said.
U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, also seized the opportunity to nudge Pakistan into taking stronger measures against insurgents hiding on its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. He said the attack was likely carried out by fighters loyal to the Haqqani network. The al-Qaida-linked group is based in Pakistan and regularly targets Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and conducts deadly attacks in Kabul.
"This attack bears the signature of the Haqqani network, which continues to target and kill innocent Afghans and blatantly violate Afghan sovereignty from the safety of Pakistan," Allen said, adding that some victims were killed in their sleep.
He said the coalition provided "minimal support" at the Afghans' request.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel was targeted because patrons were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam. He said the gunmen separated Afghan civilians from the rest of the people at the hotel and killed only foreign diplomats and Afghan security personnel.