Discuss as:

Taliban hostage siege at lakeside Kabul hotel leaves at least 23 dead

Elite Afghan police backed by NATO forces ended a 12-hour siege on Friday at a popular lakeside hotel outside Kabul. Msnbc.com's Alex Witt reports.

Updated at 7:38 a.m. ET Friday: KABUL – Guests swam for their lives after five Taliban gunmen attacked a lakeside hotel in Afghanistan, killing at least 18 people and taking 50 others hostage in a siege lasting several hours, according to reports.

The militants -- armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns -- attacked the exclusive Spozhmai hotel in the Qargha Lake recreation area late Thursday, bursting into a private party and shooting dead hotel workers. 

The local police chief told NBC News that all five insurgents were killed. The Associated Press quoted local police as saying the civilian death toll was 18 - including hotel guards and a policeman - and likely to climb. 

Many terrified guests jumped into the lake in darkness to escape the carnage, according to Afghan officials and local residents.

More photos: Afghan, NATO forces fight back after Taliban gunmen take hostages at lakeside hotel

Ahmad Jamshid / AP

A soldier from NATO-led forces, center, outside the Spozhmai hotel after the attack came to an end on Friday.

Reuters journalist Hamid Shalizi reported that the guests were a party of wealthy Afghans.

NBC News producer Cheryll Simpson said on Twitter that heavy gunfire could be heard from the hotel, which is about six miles from the center of Kabul.

The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the hotel was used for "prostitution, alcohol and immorality," she reported.

For the deeply conservative Taliban, men and women who simply mingle, perhaps flirt, are condemned as pimps and prostitutes who deserve punishment sanctioned by God.

8-year-old cleaner tells of attack
Rasoul Khan, 8, who works as a cleaner at the hotel, told Reuters that Taliban gunmen “were asking everyone where the pimps were. They shot anyone who would not co-operate with them."

The young boy had a facial injury.

With a quavering voice, Ebadullah, 14, another cleaner at the hotel, described how one of his friends wet himself when an insurgent demanded information on the whereabouts of other guests.

Musadeq Sadeq / AP

People hide from militants outside the Spozhmai hotel on Lake Qurgha during an attack on the hotel on Friday.

"He cried and said that he was an orphan and was the only bread winner for his family," he told Reuters. 

At a military hospital in Kabul where the wounded were treated, engineer Salder Rahi recalled how he had gone to the hotel to meet his brother and three friends. By the end of the ordeal, his sibling was among the dead.

"They opened fire on everybody. Everybody just ran. There was a party outside and I saw the father shot dead and his wife wounded," Rahi told Reuters.

Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images

NATO UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters fly near the Spozhmai Hotel in Qargha lake in the outskirts of Kabul in the early hours of Friday.

Abdullah Samadi, 24, was just settling in at the hotel when he heard a huge blast from an RPG, followed by gunfire. "We tried to escape, but we were surrounded by suicide bombers. We hid ourselves beneath a tree until morning. God protected us," he said.

The gunmen, Samadi said, had been closely watching their prisoners and searching for illegal stocks of wine.

"Around dawn they came closer to us and we had to jump in the water," he said. "We were there until 9 a.m. and then the situation got better and we slowly, slowly swam toward security forces."

Elite Afghan quick-response police backed by NATO troops freed the remaining hostages and killed the gunmen in an operation that only began in earnest after sunrise to help security forces avoid unnecessary civilian deaths in night-time confusion.

Two NATO attack helicopters could be seen over the single-story hotel building and a balcony popular with guests for its sunset views.

'Crime against humanity'
The incident again highlighted the ability of the Afghan Taliban to stage high-profile attacks even as NATO nations prepare to withdraw most combat troops by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces to take the lead against 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.

"This is a crime against humanity because they targeted children, women and civilians picnicking at the lake. There wasn't even a single soldier around there," said General Mohammad Zahir, head of the Kabul police investigation unit.

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.

Ahmad Jamshid / AP

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Guests at the Spozhmai must pass through hotel security before entering the hotel, where tables with umbrellas overlook the water, but security is relatively light for a city vulnerable to militant attacks.

Violence across Afghanistan has surged in recent days, with three U.S. 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.

Several well-planned assaults in Kabul in the past year have raised questions about whether the Taliban and their al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network allies have shifted tactics to embrace high-profile attacks targeting landmarks, foreigners and Afghanistan's elite, extending a guerrilla war once primarily waged in the countryside.

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, similar to one in September 2011.

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. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:

Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world