Gunmen have stormed a guesthouse in the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing five people including an American as the venue hosted a party for foreigners.
Three attackers armed with AK-47 rifles made their way into the Park Palace guesthouse in the Kolola Pushta neighbourhood a little after 8pm, said Hasib Sadiqi, a spokesman for the intelligence agency, NDS.
An hours-long siege followed which ended early on Thursday morning with another six people wounded and 54 hostages rescued.
The attack happened during a celebration that featured a musical performance by the Indian singer Altaf Hussein. According to witnesses there were many Indian and Turkish nationals among the guests, alongside Afghan foreign ministry officials.
Ahmad Zia Massoud, a former vice-president, told local media that he believed the attackers had meant to target the Indian ambassador, whom they had mistakenly thought was at the gathering.
During the day, before the attack, the Park Palace had hosted a training conference for local and international NGO workers. According to a participant they had all left the hotel by the time of the attack.
The Park Palace is located near a United Nations compound, which was put under immediate lockdown. In the past UN workers had been allowed to stay there. The guesthouse is still popular with foreigners, especially Indian nationals. During the attack the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, tweeted: “Am concerned about the situation and I pray for everyone’s safety.”
US embassy spokeswoman Monica Cummings said a US citizen was killed in the attack. She said the embassy was in close contact with Afghan authorities and was working to obtain more information.
Amar Sinha, India’s ambassador to , said he believed at least six of the hostages had been Indian citizens.
Canada’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Caitlin Workman, said all staff at the country’s embassy in Kabul were “safe and accounted for”.
According to a source close to the crisis response unit at the site, security forces initially advanced with great caution to avoid civilian losses.
Sadiqi, the NDS spokesman, said that as security forces went into the building, they didn’t know if the attackers were wearing suicide vests.
When a final clearing operation was announced shortly after 10pm, silence fell as special forces entered the guesthouse, but sporadic gunfire could be heard for several hours afterwards, as well as one large explosion after midnight.
At least five ambulances were present at the scene.
Hashmat Habib, a 72-year-old retired businessman who managed to flee the scene, said: “I was sitting in a yard with some guests of the hotel when the shooting started. So I went upstairs and tried to find out where the shooting was coming from.”
Habib said he lived in California but had been coming to the hotel since 2002, so he knew the place well. “Many years I’m living there, so I know this part of the hotel is empty,” he said. While on the way to a vacant hotel wing, he said, he came across an Afghan family of four who he helped escape.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility, but both the Taliban and the Haqqani network, another militant group, have carried out similar attacks in the past.
Early last year, suicide attackers killed 21 people dining in a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, and nine people were killed a few months later when teenage gunmen stormed the luxury Serena Hotel. In December, a suicide bomber killed a German national and wounded several others when he blew himself up during a performance at a French cultural centre.
The Taliban have been escalating attacks across the country as part of their spring offensive, which has seen the insurgents gain ground in several provinces. Earlier on Wednesday, Taliban gunmen killed seven people at a religious gathering in the southern Helmand province.