Heavily armed Taliban gunmen stormed a lakeside hotel near Kabul, sending terrified guests jumping from windows or into a lake to try to escape the onslaught.
Eighteen people were killed in the 12-hour rampage, their bullet-riddled bodies strewn on carpets, on the lawn and a blood-smeared patio.
The attack, which ended at midday Friday, was a gruesome reminder of the Taliban's determination to scare the Afghan people and undermine efforts to stabilize the nation as U.S.-led forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.
The insurgents arrived shortly before midnight Thursday at the Spozhmai hotel, in a wooded area on the banks of Qargha Lake, where Afghan families often go to relax and forget about the war.
The gunmen -- toting machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and vests laden with explosives -- killed the hotel's security guards, then pushed their way inside and began firing at guests who were having late-night meals. Gunfire rang out for hours and black smoke rose from the two-story hotel.
The attack turned the normally placid hotel into a bloody scene. One man with a gunshot wound to his torso was found dead under a tree. The bodies of two other men in blood-stained clothes were slumped over one another in the grass. The body of one of the attackers was lying on a blood-stained stone patio.
Some of the guests escaped while others were held hostage as the attackers battled more than 100 Afghan security forces who rushed to the scene with support from some coalition troops. The forces helped rescue more than 40 guests.
There were differing accounts about the number of attackers. The Afghan police special forces' commander, Brig. Gen. Sayed Mohammad Roshan, said seven gunmen had been shot and killed, while the Taliban claimed only four of their fighters were involved.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-led international military coalition and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul all condemned the attack, issuing statements accusing the Taliban of deliberately targeting civilians. Fourteen Afghan civilians, three security guards and an Afghan police officer died in the attack, Afghan police said.
"This attack bears the signature of the Haqqani network, which continues to target and kill innocent Afghans and blatantly violate Afghan sovereignty from the safety of Pakistan," said U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, adding that some victims were killed in their sleep.
The al-Qaida-linked group is based in Pakistan and regularly targets Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and conducts deadly attacks in Kabul.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel was targeted because patrons were drinking alcohol and participating in other activities banned by Islam. He said the gunmen separated Afghan civilians from the rest of the people at the hotel and killed only foreign diplomats and Afghan security personnel.
That was disputed by Mohammad Zahir, criminal director for Kabul police, who said no foreigners were among the dead.