Julius Cavendish: 'They jumped from balconies to escape'

There was nothing remarkable about the three men in police uniforms sauntering down the middle of the street – until one began spraying the green gate of the Bekhtar guesthouse with rounds from his Kalashnikov.

"He was firing everywhere," Hamidullah, a security guard at a nearby house, recalled. "First they shot the security guard. Then they shot at me and I ran back into my house. People were screaming."

Explosions rang out soon after the early morning call to prayer, as the attackers threw grenades and detonated their suicide vests. Flames engulfed the three-storey compound, forcing guests out on to their balconies.

"People were yelling, screaming," said Haji Usman, who lives directly opposite. "They were terrified. One lady was on the phone – she was pointing, asking for help."

Thick grey smoke rose over the building. As police and presidential guards belatedly arrived on the scene, the clatter of their heavy machine guns was audible across the city.

John Turner, an American contractor, recounted how he had held off the attackers with a Kalashnikov until some of the 30 guests had managed to escape through the laundry room.

Miles Robertson, an Australian working in Afghanistan as an election adviser, described how he and his wife had put wet towels over their faces and fled as the blaze burned up the room next door.

The lucky guesthouse residents were able to scramble over the roof of a neighbouring building to safety. But more than three hours after the attack began, people were still trapped on the top floor.

They began jumping from their balconies to escape the inferno, breaking bones as they landed. They were helped past the blasted body parts of the suicide squad. One of the bombers had been ripped open by his bomb, but his camel-coloured desert boots still looked brand new.

After it was all over, the guesthouse black and gutted and spent cartridges and shards of glass littering the street, Mr Usman was almost lost for words. "It was like nothing I've seen before."