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14 dead in Taliban attack on hotel

A Taliban attack on a Kabul guesthouse has left 14 people dead, including nine foreigners, in the most audacious assault by the insurgents in the Afghan capital since the start of their spring offensive.

Among the nine foreigners killed in Wednesday's attack, seven were men and two were women, according to a government official. The full breakdown of the nationalities was not immediately known but an American and four Indians have been confirmed dead.

Gunmen stormed the restaurant of the Park Palace Hotel in the Afghan capital as it was hosting a party for foreigners on Wednesday evening, and authorities said the victims were killed during an hours-long siege that ended early this morning. At least 54 hostages were rescued, according to Afghan officials.

Five Afghans were also among the dead - four men and one woman - and seven were wounded, including one Afghan policeman.

The UN mission in Afghanistan condemned the assault, saying in a statement that it was an "atrocity".

"Taliban statements on avoiding civilian casualties ring hollow when we set them against the latest killings," said UNAMA's human rights director Georgette Gagnon.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in an email distributed to media that the hotel was targeted because of the presence of foreigners, including Americans there. In the claim, he said only one attacker was involved, armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, a suicide vest and a pistol - not three as the Afghan government reported. The Taliban often exaggerate their claims.

Afghan police kept the hotel cordoned off on Thursday. Earlier, they said all the attackers were killed in the shootout with security troops.

The attack began at around 8.30pm local time when the gunmen opened fire at the hotel restaurant, according to Kabul police chief General Abdul Rahman Rahimi.

US embassy spokeswoman Monica Cummings said in an email statement that a US citizen was killed in the attack, although she had no further details and did not identify the victim.

Ms Cummings said the US embassy was in close contact with Afghan authorities and was working to obtain more information. "Our thoughts are with the families of the victims," she said.

India's ambassador Amar Sinha confirmed that four Indian nationals were also among the dead - three men and a woman. He said they were among a total of 11 Indians resident at the guesthouse, none of whom are embassy personnel.

The guesthouse had about 100 residents, he said.

Throughout the standoff, sporadic gunfire echoed around the guesthouse in a central neighbourhood that is home to United Nations compounds and a foreign-run hospital. At one point, two explosions could be heard and four ambulances later arrived at the scene.

Amin Habib, a US citizen from Los Angeles, told the AP that a party was going on at the hotel to honour a Canadian when the gunmen stormed the guesthouse. He said dozens of people, including foreigners and US citizens, were inside the hotel at the time.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's Twitter account said he was "concerned about the situation (and) I pray for everyone's safety".

Canada's foreign affairs spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said all staff at the Canadian embassy in Kabul were "safe and accounted for".

Hours after the standoff began, fire trucks arrived at the scene, with firefighters saying they were called in to clear and secure the area. A number of people were seen leaving the building. Police initially freed some 20 people trapped in the guesthouse, but others had remained inside, according to Zia Massoud, an Afghan government official.

The hotel has both guest rooms for visitors and a residential area for those who live full-time in Kabul, including foreign aid workers.

Afghan security forces have been struggling to fend off Taliban attacks since US and Nato forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of last year.

The Taliban have staged similar attacks in the past on Kabul hotels and guesthouses - typically extremely well-guarded locations with foreigners.

In March 2014, the Taliban stormed the Serena Hotel where guests had gathered at the restaurant for a buffet dinner to celebrate the Persian new year. Nine people in all were shot at close range and killed in the attack, which was particularly shocking because the luxury hotel was long considered one of the safest places in Kabul to stay. The dead included four foreigners, an Afghan businessman and an Afghan journalist, his wife and two of his three children.

And in January 2014, the Taliban attacked a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, killing 21 people, making it the deadliest single attack against foreign civilians in the course of a nearly 13-year US-led war there.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack.

In a statement from his office, Mr Ghani said he had also spoken to the leaders of the nations whose citizens were so brutally killed in the Taliban assault.

Among the nine foreigners killed in the attack was an American, a British citizen, an Italian and four Indian nationals. The nationalities of the remaining two victims are not known.

Mr Ghani lashed out at the Taliban, saying the "terrorists and enemies of Afghanistan cannot harm our country's relationships with other countries with these activities".

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