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Taliban insurgents kill 17 in attack on Kabul hotel, as hours-long standoff ends

Heavily armed Taliban insurgents killed 17 people -- most of them civilians -- in an attack Friday on a lakeside hotel just north of Kabul, Afghan officials said.

Insurgents battled Afghan security forces for about 12 hours while they held hotel guests hostage inside the hotel. Kabul police said the fifth and final attacker was killed at midday Friday, ending the standoff.

It was 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.

Twelve Afghan civilians, four security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, said Gen. Kadam Shah Shayem, the Afghan National Army commander for Kabul.

Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi said five attackers -- armed with machines guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives -- stormed the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake before midnight on Thursday. By midmorning Friday, 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 around 11:20 p.m. last night when it all started," said Mohammad Ghani, who was at the scene. "It got quiet for a couple of hours and then the fighting stated again."

Four guests jumped out of a window at the two-story hotel and crouched in the lake to hide from the attackers, Shayem said.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam.

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 paddleboats 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.

Security at the lake is light compared with targets inside the Afghan capital. While hotels at the lake have armed guards, there are no massive blast walls and security cordons that surround government and military buildings in Kabul.

The hotel was a soft target compared with the attacks insurgents have launched inside the city in recent years, including taking over construction sites and firing down on embassies and storming the tightly secured Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul last summer.

The week has been particularly violent in Afghanistan, as insurgents stepped up attacks against international forces. On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked U.S. and Afghan forces at a checkpoint in a busy market in the east, killing 21 people, including three U.S. soldiers. The same day, seven Afghan civilians were killed by a roadside bomb.

Those bombings came the day after two attacks in the south in which militants stormed a NATO military base and attacked a police checkpoint. U.S. troops were wounded in the attack on the NATO base, officials said. On Monday, three gunmen dressed in Afghan police uniforms killed one American service member and wounded nine others in Kandahar's Zhari district.

The fighting suggests that the Taliban are not planning to wait for international combat forces to complete their exit from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has to withdraw 23,000 American troops by the end of September, leaving about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.