KABUL, Afghanistan -- Heavily armed Taliban insurgents killed 18 people -- most of them civilians -- in an attack Friday 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 for the next 12 hours. Kabul police said all five attackers had been shot and killed by midday Friday, 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," he added.
Kabul Police Chief Mohammad Ayub Salangi said the 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."
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban attacked the hotel because foreigners there were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam, but that was disputed by the Kabul police.
"The Taliban propaganda is saying that there was immoral activity there and that people were drinking alcohol," said Zahir, the criminal director for the Kabul police. "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 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. Zahir said only two of the three guards killed at the hotel were armed.
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.
-- Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.