QARGHA LAKE, Afghanistan – At least 15 civilians were killed when seven Taliban militants shot their way into a much-visited lakeside resort here and took scores of hostages during an 11-hour siege, Afghan officials said on Friday. The seven attackers, a police officer and three private guards also died as Afghan security forces fought their way into the compound. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that Afghans drank alcohol there and that there was prostitution and dancing. “These acts are illegal and strictly prohibited in Islam,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. He added that: “Women dancers were sexually misused there.”
Police officials described the sprawling resort at Qargha lake and the Spozhmai hotel, where the drama unfolded, as a daunting place to mount a rescue operation because it is wooded and provides easy cover for attackers. “There are lots of trees; it’s like a jungle, which makes it difficult for us to spot the attackers,” said a security official as the siege unfolded. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media.
In addition to the main hotel, the resort includes at least one other hotel and numerous small cottages.
“The Afghan security forces managed to evacuate 250 to 300 customers at the hotel in the initial hours of the attack and in the morning we resumed our operation and so far we’ve managed to rescue 40 more hostages including women and children,” said General Ayoub Salangi, the Kabul police chief.
“We also rescued four men who were stuck in the water,” he said, referring to guests at the hotel who jumped into the lake in the initial moments of the attack. Because they could not swim, they clung to a stone wall, immersed in the chilly mountain waters until they were fished out by police in the morning.
The attack was the latest against civilians by the Taliban, who stormed a branch of Kabul Bank in Jalalabad in early 2011, executing customers. Nearly a year ago, they attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing at least eight people.
Beginning at dawn on Friday there was gunfire as Afghan police officers fought the assailants and prepared a counterattack, said Gen. Mohammed Zahir, head of the Kabul Criminal Investigation Division. At least two of the attackers appeared to have died when they detonated suicide vests they were wearing.
“The Spozhmai Hotel is not a military facility, it’s a civilian hotel,” General Zahir said. “We still do not know why the Taliban targeted the Spozhmai Hotel.”
General Zahir said that the attack began at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday when the Taliban entered the hotel and “started shooting indiscriminately and injured a lot of civilians who were having a late dinner.”
“Some of the civilians managed to escape and some were taken hostage,” he said. By early morning, American helicopters were shooting flares and the area was swarming with Afghan National Police and army troops. NATO officials confirmed that it was a joint operation.
The picturesque hotel is the centerpiece of the resort, which was once the property of Afghanistan’s royal family and is now owned by the government. About 10 miles from the capital, it is one of the few places in Kabul Province where people can go for a break from the crowded city streets. There are boats for rent and cottages for families, and the resort is popular with families on the weekly Friday holiday.
The lake is also a favorite spot for young Kabul residents who buy illegal alcohol and drink it in the picnic areas.
In a statement on their Web site on Friday, the Taliban said the resort area included “prime places in Kabul for prostitution and parties.”
The Taliban said the hotels in the area were “usually used for immoral and unethical purposes both for the foreigners and their puppet colleagues.”
A waiter at the hotel, Mohammed Wais, 21, said the attack began as he was in the kitchen slicing onions. “Suddenly we heard shooting outside the hotel, we heard shouting and yelling and then somebody said, ‘They shot the guards, they shot the guards,’ ” he said.
He and several other workers escaped, Mr. Wais said, but at least 20 others were trapped. He said they had told him by cellphone there were about 15 attackers. At 3 a.m. Friday, he said, “their phones were turned off.”