QARGHA LAKE, Afghanistan — As families ate a late dinner at a popular lakeside resort hotel here on a warm summer night, at least three Taliban shot their way into the compound, entered the dining room and took an unknown number of hostages, Afghan officials said early Friday.
At dawn there was still gunfire, and Afghan police officers were fighting with the attackers but trying to stage a counterattack so as not to harm the families held hostage, said Gen. Mohammed Zahir, head of the Kabul Criminal Investigation Division.
“The Spozhmai Hotel is not a military facility, it’s a civilian hotel,” General Zahir said. “We still do not know why the Taliban targeted the Spozhmai Hotel.”
Haji Abdul Qadir, the district governor of Paghman, the district of Kabul Province where the resort is, said that the police told him that at least one guard had been killed and another had been wounded, but that there were likely to be other casualties.
“At 11:30 p.m., a group of three Taliban entered the Spozhmai Hotel and started shooting indiscriminately and injured a lot of civilians who were having a late dinner,” General Zahir said. “Some of the civilians managed to escape, and some were taken hostage.”
“We do not know how many people are still trapped inside, and we still do not know the exact number of insurgents,” he said.
By early morning, American helicopters were shooting flares and the area was swarming with Afghan National Police and army troops. More NATO forces were on the way, according to Afghan officials at the scene, and NATO officials confirmed that it was a joint operation.
The picturesque hotel is the centerpiece of the resort, which was once the property of Afghanistan’s royal family and is now owned by the government. About 10 miles from the capital, it is one of the few places in Kabul Province where people can go for a break from the crowded city streets. There are boats for rent and cottages for families, and the resort is popular with families on the weekly Friday holiday.
The lake is also a favorite spot for young Kabul residents who buy illegal alcohol and drink it in the picnic areas.
In a statement on their Web site on Friday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which they said was carried out because the resort area included “prime places in Kabul for prostitution and parties.”
The Taliban said the hotels in the area were “usually used for immoral and unethical purposes both for the foreigners and their puppet colleagues.”
A waiter at the hotel, Mohammed Wais, 21, said the attack began at 11 p.m. as he was in the kitchen slicing onions. “Suddenly we heard shooting outside the hotel, we heard shouting and yelling and then somebody said, ‘They shot the guards, they shot the guards,’ ” he said.
He and several other workers escaped, Mr. Wasf said, but he knew of at least 20 other workers who were trapped. He said they had told him by cellphone there were about 15 attackers. At 3 a.m. Friday, he said, “their phones were turned off.”
Amid the attack, some terrified hotel guests jumped into the lake, which is near the hotel and deep, but because they could not swim, they were still clinging to a decorative sea wall built into the water more than six hours later. As the morning wore on, it was increasingly clear that security officials still knew relatively little about what was going on inside the hotel, including the number of hostages or the number of attackers, where they were positioned and whether they were wearing suicide vests.
At one point an explosion was heard and smoke rose from the building.
“So far two bombers have been killed and one is wounded,” said Gen. Ayoub Salangi, the Kabul provincial police chief, adding that it was unknown how many more bombers were in the hotel.
Twenty hostages had been rescued, General Salangi said, adding, “We do not know how many more there are in there. There are still some more people trapped.”
A security official at the scene said the hotel and its setting presented a daunting layout.
“There are lots of trees; it’s like a jungle, which makes it difficult for us to spot the attackers,” said the official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. “There are a lot of people in the hotel who might have been trapped. We believe the attackers are still able to resist for sometime at least.”
Another senior police official said that as best they could tell the attackers had brought a lot of ammunition and, because they had occupied a hotel on the eve of the weekend holiday, would have plenty of food at their disposal.
This is not the first time the Taliban have attacked civilians. They stormed a branch of Kabul Bank in Jalalabad in early 2011, executing customers, and nearly a year ago theystormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing at least eight people.