KABUL — Gunfire and explosions rang out today in a diplomatic district of Kabul as security forces battled heavily armed militants who tried to storm a hotel owned by a prominent political family, police said.
Blasts could still be heard hours after the assault began in the upmarket neighbourhood of Wazir Akbar Khan late on Tuesday night, the latest in a string of attacks in the Afghan capital.
"We have surrounded the area and cornered them," Kabul police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi said, adding that no casualties have been reported.
"The attackers wanted to get into Heetal hotel but failed. They have now taken position among the trees behind the hotel and are firing at security forces."
The manager of the Heetal Hotel, owned by the family of Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and known for housing foreigners, said all guests were in safe rooms and no one was hurt.
"Heetal is very well fortified. After one or two initial explosions, our guards started firing on attackers who were unable to get inside," manager Beizhan said from inside the guesthouse.
"Gunshots and blasts can still be heard from a distance," he added, without specifying if there were any foreign guests inside.
The guest house was damaged in 2009 when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the gate, killing eight people and wounding another 40.
Tuesday's attack began around 11 pm local time. A reporter near the scene heard the loud crackle of gunfire and more than a dozen rounds of explosions from the area in the space of an hour.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault in Wazir Akbar Khan, home to several foreign embassies and diplomatic compounds which has been hit by Taliban attacks in the past.
The attack comes as the insurgents have intensified their annual spring-summer offensive despite Kabul's repeated overtures to reopen peace negotiations.
Heavy civilian toll
The Taliban, waging a 13-year war against the US-backed Afghan government, earlier Tuesday killed 26 Afghan police in multiple attacks in the volatile south.
The militants have launched a series of attacks in the capital and around the country as NATO forces have pulled back from the frontlines.
A blast triggered by a Taliban car bomber ripped through the parking lot of the justice ministry in Kabul on May 19, killing four people and wounding dozens of others.
Also this month 14 people – mostly foreigners – were killed in a Taliban attack on a guesthouse in the capital that trapped dozens attending a concert. Official efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table have so far borne little fruit.
The surge in attacks has taken a heavy toll on civilians, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. In the first four months of 2015, civilian casualties jumped 16 per cent from the same period last year, it said.
The Afghan government has drawn public criticism for failing to end insurgent attacks, which critics blame on political infighting and a lengthy delay in finalising a cabinet.
Earlier this month NATO formally announced plans to retain a small military presence in Afghanistan after 2016 to help strengthen local security forces. — AFP