American killed in seven-hour Kabul guesthouse siege

An American citizen was killed when gunmen stormed a downtown Kabul guesthouse late Wednesday, trapping several foreigners awaiting a musical concert and triggering a seven-hour standoff with Afghan security forces.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the siege on the Park Palace guesthouse, but it comes as the Taliban — who have previously attacked such properties frequented by foreigners — press their annual spring offensive.

Police said the siege ended with all the three assailants killed, but the final casualty figure was not immediately clear as security officials combed the site for explosives.

“We can confirm reports that a US citizen was killed in the attack on a guesthouse in Kabul,” US embassy spokeswoman Monica Cummings told AFP.

“Our thoughts are with the families of the victims at this time. Out of respect for the families of those killed, we have no further information at this time.”

There were also “a few Indian casualties” in the attack, India’s ambassador to Kabul Amar Sinha said in a Twitter post.

He earlier told AFP his embassy was in contact with up to five Indian nationals stuck inside the guesthouse who were safe.

The Park Palace was due to host a concert by well-known Afghan classical singer Altaf Hussain, with several VIPs invited, when the gunfire started, a guesthouse employee told AFP.

The employee, who did not wish to be named, said he barricaded himself in a room in the building when the shootout began and heard several people screaming in the corridors as gunshots rang out.

The employee later managed to flee the Park Palace and said he saw at least five blood-covered bodies lying near the entrance.

Roads leading up to the Park Palace, frequented by foreigners and international aid agency workers, were blocked by a large number of security personnel who arrived after the attack, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

– Heavy gunfire –

Kabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said security forces managed to evacuate a “large number of guests” after the siege began.

Rahimi, who was at the scene of the ongoing attack, had earlier said security forces faced heavy gunfire from the assailants.

The attack comes a day after a visit to Kabul by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who assured Afghanistan of Islamabad’s full support in its battle against the Taliban, saying “the enemies of Afghanistan cannot be the friends of Pakistan”.

His unusually strong remarks are the latest sign of a thaw in the once-frosty relationship between the two countries. Afghan officials have frequently accused longtime nemesis Pakistan of harbouring and nurturing Taliban insurgents.

But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has actively courted Pakistan since coming to power in what observers say is a calculated gambit to pressure the insurgents to the negotiating table.

The Taliban has been behind previous attacks on compounds and guesthouses occupied or frequented by foreigners, including at least two separate assaults in Kabul in November.

Militants also launched a major attack on a compound of the International Organization for Migration in 2013.

Along with guesthouses and compounds, the range of targets hit last year in Kabul included the Afghan capital’s most prestigious hotel and a restaurant popular with Western diplomats.

Taliban insurgents, who have waged a 13-year war to topple the US-backed Afghan government, launched their spring offensive across Afghanistan late last month, stepping up attacks on government and foreign targets.

This year marks the first fighting season in which Afghan forces are battling the insurgents without the full support of US-led foreign combat troops.

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