ISLAMABAD - Afghan-led forces stormed a hotel outside Kabul Friday, rescuing civilians taken hostage by heavily armed Taliban gunmen in an overnight siege. Police say at least 20 people were killed in the 12-hour gun battle.
NATO helicopters hovered overhead Friday as Afghan security and coalition forces fought a fierce battle to free the hostages and retake the Spozhmai Hotel.
Survivor Sharif Alakozai described his horror as the attackers, one wearing an Afghan police uniform, burst into the hotel's restaurant where about 50 people were eating.
"They fired on one young man who was in front of him," said Alakozai. "They shot his feet and when he fell on the ground they fired another four or five bullets into his chest." He adds that he saw three attackers - one in a police uniform and two in local civilian clothes.
The Taliban claimed it launched the attack because the hotel was used for prostitution, drinking and wild parties.
Interior Ministry spokesman Siddiq Siddiqi spoke to reporters after Afghan-led forces killed the last militant.
"Four attackers - Taliban terrorists - were involved in today's attack in Kabul. Unfortunately we have lost many civilians," said Siddiqi.
He says Afghan police were also killed in the fight before the area was cleared by the security forces.
General John Allen, commander of international forces in Afghanistan, blamed the attack and the deaths on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network.
Military officials in Afghanistan in the past have suggested ties between the Taliban and Haqqani militants.
The United States has called on Pakistan to do more to eliminate the Haqqani militant network, which stages its cross-border attacks from hideouts in northwestern Pakistan.
Afghan officials said they rescued most of the hostages, including women and children who were at the lakeside resort at the time. The hotel on the western outskirts of Kabul is a popular relaxation spot for wealthy Afghans.
Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghan Analysts Network in Kabul said the Taliban use such attacks on civilian targets to raise their profile in Afghanistan.
"Creating this situation of siege in a place where the police [and] security forces have to react and clean a place occupied by insurgents, it is more prolonged and draws more attention from the media," said Foschini. "So I think these kinds of attacks, that is their major purpose."
The United States and other coalition members are on schedule to reduce the number of troops they have in Afghanistan, with some nations expected to pull out completely next year.
Foschini said Afghan security forces are still seen as largely corrupt, but their actions in cases like this draws praise from locals. Afghan troops still need support from international forces, but they are increasingly taking the lead role in operations against militants.