KABUL, Afghanistan – 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.
That was disputed by Mohammad Zahir, criminal director for Kabul police, who said no foreigners were among the dead.
"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 paddleboats and horseback riding are on offer. It is one of the few places in the Kabul area where young people, both men and women, can gather for a night out. 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, which has been hit frequently as the Taliban show they can still strike the seat of the Afghan government. 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. Zahir said only two of the three guards killed at the hotel were armed.
The hotel was a soft target compared with attacks launched inside Kabul 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 the Taliban are not planning to wait for international combat forces to complete their exit from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The U.S. plans to withdraw 33,000 American troops by the end of September, leaving about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.
Separately, the U.S.-led coalition said two NATO service members were killed Friday by insurgents in southern Afghanistan. So far this year, 203 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan.