AS MANY as 18 people were killed in a 12-hour siege when five Taliban suicide attackers stormed a lakeside restaurant at a popular Kabul beauty spot.
The heavily armed young men first shot the restaurant guards and then took hostages at the venue on the shore of Qargha Lake, west of the capital.
Customers jumped into the lake or hid in bushes as they desperately telephoned their relatives for help after the assault late on Thursday evening.
The siege was ended when elite Afghan police backed by NATO forces broke into the site and killed the five gunmen.
A spokesman for the Taliban insurgent movement said the restaurant at the Spozhmai Hotel was targeted because it was used by Afghan officials and foreigners to drink alcohol and womanise.
Police and witnesses denied there were foreigners present when the terrorists burst in. The upmarket restaurant was instead packed with families, including many women and children.
As many as 14 Afghan civilians, three security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, said Mohammad Zahir, of Kabul police.
The young rebel Islamists were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, suicide vests and machineguns, he said.
"The attackers entered the hotel and suddenly opened fire on families having a late dinner," he said. "The hotel was crowded. Some of the guests jumped from the window into the yard. They were hiding under trees or any safe place they could find. Three guests jumped into the lake and hid in the water."
The attack was the latest in a string of suicide assaults on the Afghan capital.
It was the first for some time against such a purely civilian target.
Such attacks underline the continuing inability of the Afghan government and its NATO backers to secure the capital. However, coalition commanders say they achieve nothing for the Taliban except media coverage.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, said the attack on such a soft target proved the Taliban was weakening.
Qargha Lake, west of the capital, is a popular picnic and day trip destination. The two-storey Spozhmai Hotel had been filled with several hundred guests when the attackers struck at 11pm. (© Daily Telegraph, London)