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May 27, 8:07 AM EDT

4 Taliban militants die in attack in Afghan capital


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- An all-night siege in an upscale neighborhood of the Afghan capital, Kabul, ended in the early hours of Wednesday morning with the deaths of four heavily armed Taliban attackers, though no civilians or security personnel were injured or killed, an Afghan official said.

The attack came amid intensified fighting across many parts of Afghanistan, following the start in late April of the annual Taliban warm weather offensive. A Taliban attack on a guesthouse in another part of Kabul earlier this month left 14 people dead, including nine foreigners.

Wednesday's siege ended after 5 a.m. in a sustained barrage of automatic weapons fire and a series of huge explosions that resounded across the Wazir Akbar Khan district of downtown Kabul, home to many embassies and foreign firms.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned "the terrorist attack" and praised the quick response of security forces, which he said had prevented civilian casualties.

Speaking to reporters outside the guesthouse that was the target of the six-hour assault, Kabul's police chief Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi said that four attackers were involved and that all had been killed "before reaching their target."

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in tweets on a recognized Twitter account. They referred to the target as "belonging to the occupiers," reiterating the insurgents' message that foreign installations are specific targets in the Afghan capital.

Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi said weapons had been seized, including a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, three automatic rifles and a hand grenade at the site of the assault.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that the Taliban strategy of targeting of guest houses and hotels "shows their complete disregard for civilian lives." It said all embassy staff were accounted for and safe.

The United Nations already has documented a record high number of civilian casualties - 974 killed and 1,963 injured - in the first four months of 2015, a 16 percent increase over the same period last year.

The siege began late Tuesday, with heavy explosions accompanying sporadic automatic rifle fire, and was focused on the Rabbani Guesthouse, which is favored by foreigners as the area is in the heart of the diplomatic district and close to the airport.

The attackers apparently attempted to enter the hotel by firing a rocket propelled grenade at its heavy steel front gate. Part of the gate was burned, but it was not damaged enough to allow the militants entry. The hours of shooting seem to have marked a showdown as the militants sought cover and police waited for daylight to identify and move in on their targets.

The front walls of neighboring buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, and cars parked in the road outside were badly damaged. Guards at the hotel gate said the attackers, thwarted in their attempt to breach the gates, had retreated into a guardhouse where they were tried to hide from police. The guardhouse bore the marks of sustained heavy weapons fire.

Police and a paramilitary Crisis Response Unit surrounded the area, blocked roads, took up positions on rooftops and parked armored personnel vehicles in the streets around the guesthouse. Police officers smashed lights throughout the neighborhood to cover their movements.

The hotel, formerly known as the Heetal Hotel, was damaged in a December 2009 suicide car bomb attack near the home of former Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud - brother of legendary anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. That 2009 attack killed eight people and wounded nearly 40.

The hotel is owned by the Rabbani family, which includes the late Burhanuddin Rabbani who served as president of Afghanistan from 1992 until 1996 and was assassinated in Kabul in 2011, and current Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani.

It is currently occupied by contractors working for a Western embassy, which asked that it not be identified and which has had a close military and aid relationship with Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 overthrew the Taliban regime.

Afghan security forces have been struggling to fend off Taliban attacks since U.S. and NATO forces concluded their combat mission at the end of last year and the mission morphed into one of training and support.

The new insurgent strategy appears to be aimed at forcing the government to spread its forces thinly across many regions of the country, to focus on security rather than developing the economy and creating jobs as it has promised to do.

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Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this story.

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