Taliban gunmen have killed at least 15 people after seizing a hotel on the outskirts of the capital Kabul, Afghan police have said.
The gunmen who attacked the popular hotel in the Qargha Lake recreation area, were holding several hostages, thought to include women and children, police said on Friday.
Afghan security forces freed 23 civilians and killed two Taliban fighters during an operation launched to end the strike on Friday, Kabul’s Police Chief Ayoub Salangi said.
“Two terrorists have been killed and we have cleared the second floor of the hotel. We are now clearing the area of the
remaining insurgents,” he said.
Among those killed were six civilians, three armed hotel guards, and one police officer, Salangi said.
However, the Taliban claim that no civilians were killed and that all 15 casualties were individuals connected to the government.
“The Taliban claim that they have killed 15 people but they say that they are only people who are connected to the government,” said Al Jazeera’s Jennifer Glasse, reporting from Kabul on Friday.
“The Taliban claim that they have separated out any innocent civilans and put them in a safe room,” she said.
Afghan security forces launched their operation at around 5:30am (0100GMT), police said, though fighting was still going on several hours later.
“It is an ongoing situation. We do continue to hear explosions and small arms fire from the direction of the hotel and it is quite a confused situation,” our correspondent said.
“We do know that there are Afghans still inside the building. But no one is exactly sure how many or who they are.
“Police inside the hotel believe there are six attackers, and they say one has been killed. But the interior ministry spokesperson claims there were four attackers and that three of them have been killed,” Glasse said.
The Taliban assault began around 11:30pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday, and at least one of the attackers detonated an explosive suicide vest, said General Mohammad Zahir, head of the Kabul police investigation unit.
“Insurgents armed with RPG rockets, and heavy and light weapons, are inside the Spozhmai Hotel and fighting with security forces,” he said earlier on Friday.
The Taliban gunmen, some armed with rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, attacked the hotel during the night, triggering a gunbattle in the darkness, police said.
Three of the attackers were said to have been wearing suicide vests. Explosions and fighting were reported in at least six different locations within the resort.
“The area under attack is about 45 minutes outside Kabul in a lake area where many Afghan families come to spend the weekend,” Glasse said.
“This is a very bold attack coming, as it has, during the weekend.
“As with many of the [recent] attacks, it isn’t what damage they can do, but what they can do to undermine the sense of security around Kabul,” our correspondent said.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying wealthy Afghans and foreigners used the hotel to have “wild parties” in the lead up to the Friday religious day holiday.
“Our mujahideen [holy warriors] last night attacked this hotel because high-profile people from embassies, ISAF and the Kabul administration gather here every Thursday for wild parties, drinking and prostitution,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told AFP.
The hotel assault will heighten fears about security as NATO prepares to hand responsibility to Afghan forces and recall the vast majority of its 130,000 combat troops.