Taliban gunmen who attacked a popular lakeside hotel on the outskirts of the Afghan capital are holding several hostages, thought to include women and children, and some people have been killed, Kabul police said on Friday.
At least three militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns assaulted the exclusive Spozhmai hotel in Kabul's popular Qargha Lake recreation area late on Thursday night, triggering a six-hour gun battle.
Gunshots and explosions were still ringing out as dawn broke, a Reuters journalist on the scene reported, and two Nato attack helicopters could be seen hovering over the single story hotel building.
The incident highlighted the ability of the Afghan Taliban to stage high-profile attacks after more than a decade of US-led efforts to defeat the insurgency.
Authorities are about midway through a transition process during which security responsibility is being handed from Nato-led foreign troops to Afghan forces.
Qargha Lake is one of Kabul's few options for weekend getaways. Restaurants and hotels that dot the shore are popular with Afghan government officials and businessmen, particularly on Thursday nights.
Afghan police and soldiers fanned out around the hotel, arriving in cars and armoured four-wheel drive Humvees, taking cover behind trees flanking the lake and a nearby golf course.
"It would be very easy for police to kill (the gunmen), but we are afraid because there are civilians, including women and children, trapped inside," General Mohammad Zahir, head of the Kabul police investigation unit, said before daybreak.
The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force said Afghan civilians and police appeared to have been killed.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, complaining wealthy Afghans and foreigners used the hotel, about 10 km (6 miles) from the centre of Kabul, to have "wild parties" in the lead-up to the Friday religious day holiday.
Local resident Nasir Ahmad said his brother, who worked in the Spozhmai hotel, the most exclusive of several around the scenic lake, had informed him that many people had been killed.
A private party appeared to have been underway when the gunmen struck. Police said many guests jumped into the water to escape the assault.
Violence across Afghanistan has surged in recent days, with three US soldiers and more than a dozen civilians killed in successive attacks, mostly in the
country's east where Nato-led forces have focused their efforts during the summer fighting months.
President Hamid Karzai told a special session of parliament on Thursday that attacks by insurgents against Afghan police and soldiers were increasing as most foreign combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Initial police reports suggested three gunmen killed hotel guards before entering the hotel, possibly with others joining them.
Guests must pass hotel security to access the Spozhmai hotel's seating area, where tables with umbrellas overlook the water, but security is relatively light for a city vulnerable to militant attacks.
Another police source said there were an unknown number of families trapped inside the hotel, making a frontal attack difficult.
"We are afraid if we take serious action and fight them it will result in losing lives among civilian families," he said.
Afghan insurgents attacked Kabul's heavily protected diplomatic and government district on April 15 in an assault eventually quelled by Afghan special forces guided by Western mentors.
Afghan police and soldiers have had security responsibility for Kabul for some time, but there have been periodic attacks in the capital, with many blamed on the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network of militants.