KABUL, Afghanistan -- A bloody 11-hour siege of a lakeside resort outside Kabul ended Friday when police killed the last of a four-member team of Taliban assailants -- the latest in a series of high-profile strikes in and around the capital in recent months. Seventeen hotel guests and workers, as well as with one police officer, also died in the attack, according to the Interior Ministry.
The Afghan government issued a blistering statement blaming the assault on "brainwashed terrorists" based in Pakistan, and Marine Gen. John Allen, the American commander of Western troops in Kabul, said the attack "bears the signature" of the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot with its home base in Pakistan's tribal areas.
In the aftermath of the attack, the once-picturesque Spozhmai hotel on the shores of Lake Karga lay in ruins, its façade blasted away, floors sticky with blood, furniture smashed and shattered glass and shell casings littering the ground. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the resort -- long popular with Kabul’s wealthy elite -- calling it a "hub of obscenity and vulgarity."
The attack began shortly before midnight, when gunmen armed with heavy weapons and wearing suicide vests seized control of the hotel, setting off an all-night firefight that continued until mid-morning. Several hundred people were inside the resort at the time, including dozens attending a private party in the dining hall that was targeted.
Many were cut down as they tried to flee; some saved themselves by jumping out windows and into the lake. Survivors described terrifyingly methodical executions of diners who pleaded for their lives, but were shot point-blank.
A 14-year-old waiter named Ebadullah said that after fatally shooting the security guards, the assailants cornered him in an adjacent room and demanded to know where the "adulterous bastards" were. "I told them, 'I don't know, ... '" he said.
They left him alive, and he spent the night crouching alone, listening to the din of gunshots and explosions. "I was frightened to death," he said.
The Taliban claimed that foreigners and high-ranking Afghan officials were among the dead, but Afghan officials said all those killed were Afghans. After the siege ended, weeping relatives waited outside the hotel to claim the bodies of victims.
Abdullah Shah, in his 60s, said he lost his son, a government worker who was married with five children. "Last night he came here with his friends, and this morning we heard that he was killed," he said.
NATO troops, including special-operations forces from New Zealand, aided Afghan police in the siege, but Western military officials were careful to characterize the rescue operation as Afghan-led. A similar attack last summer on a landmark Kabul hotel ended after international troops intervened, providing helicopters and commandos.
Even with security guards posted at its entrance, the hotel presented a vulnerable target. Thursday evening is the start of the Afghan weekend, when families flock to Lake Karga, picnicking by the water or and dining in the hotels and restaurants that dot the shore.
"The Taliban targeted a safe picnic spot -- for them it was a very soft target,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi.
Condolences poured in from government officials and Western diplomats. President Hamid Karzai said the attack represented "failure" on the part of "the enemies of Afghanistan" -- the government's usual term for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Allen offered sympathies to families of "those defenseless Afghans who were murdered."
"There is no doubt that innocent Afghan civilians were the intended targets of this unspeakably brutal attack," he said.
-- Laura King and Aimal Yaqubi