At least 12 killed amid invasion of base used for education and helping Afghanistan's civil society groups.
With its fortified double set of walls, "airlock" entry system and expensive guards hired from the ranks of retired Gurkhas, the occupants of the British Council compound in Kabul could be forgiven for feeling at times more like prisoners than teachers and cultural ambassadors. The compound, which in happier times hosted top diplomats and Afghan government ministers for the Queen's official birthday party, typifies how the rise and rise of the Taliban-led insurgency has forced foreign officials to effectively cut themselves off from the country they work in.
At daybreak on Friday these multi-million pound precautions were not enough to stop the war crashing right into the heart of an organisation which, after years of having a low profile in Afghanistan, had recently received additional funds to greatly expand its work on education, cultural exchanges and helping Afghan civil society groups.
At 5.40am two vehicles laden with explosives and detonating in quick succession made short work of the walls and booms that are meant to keep the outside world away. A handful of heavily-armed suicide attackers then came running from nearby side streets, shouting and firing into the air.
Even before they had got into the compound through the now wrecked front gate the assault had claimed several lives.
"The explosions destroyed my windows and threw me against the wall," said Shah Agha, whose house overlooks the British Council. "When the dust cleared I could see dead municipality workers on the ground and the body of a policeman without a head."
The location of the British Council compound in Kabul.
Details of exactly what happened inside the compound have not yet emerged, but the sound of gunfire and explosions suggested the militants followed the gory new pattern of such attacks: they moved methodically around and tried to kill everyone they found, engaging in fire fights with the team employed by G4S, the British private security company.
As the Gurkhas and Afghans fought back, the two female British Council teachers, one a UK citizen, the other South African, were rushed to a "safe room" by a British G4S bodyguard.
The room is essentially a windowless bunker sealed with a massive metal door, designed to withstand any attack for enough time for outside help to arrive.
On the other side of town, at the British embassy, the ambassador and senior staff scrambled to a control room where they monitored the situation as it unfolded.
A communication link allowed the ambassador, William Patey, to remain in constant touch with the British Council staff hiding in the safe room.
Speaking after they had been safely "extracted" and taken to the British Embassy, he said they were "obviously shaken but well, uninjured".
The Afghan commando unit charged with responding to such incidents has gained considerable experience dealing with the sort of exceptionally difficult situations that would tax the world's best Swat teams.
In June they were involved in a battle to regain control of the hilltop Intercontinental Hotel which was assaulted in similar fashion by a squad of suicide fighters. But despite being among the best trained members of Afghanistan's security forces it appeared they remain heavily reliant on their foreign mentors, members of New Zealand's Special Air Service.
With so many soldiers on the ground, including British troops who manned a cordon, the relatively upmarket west Kabul neighbourhood that is home to leading members of the Afghan establishment, including one of the vice-presidents, soon resembled a war zone in southern Afghanistan.
Amid sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions, low-flying Apache helicopters circled above, occasionally firing off flares – an automatic counter-measure against surface to air missiles.
Some journalists wore flak jackets and Kevlar helmets to report from the streets of the relatively secure Afghan capital, while the tell tale "whizzing" noise indicates bullets are passing nearby at one point sent reporters piling into drainage ditches for cover.
At midday a pair of Blackhawk helicopters picked up a seriously wounded soldier to take him to a Nato trauma hospital. The New Zealand Defence Force later confirmed that an SAS member had died en route to hospital after being shot in the chest, the first death the regiment has suffered in Afghanistan.
Nine people were killed in the fighting and 22 injured. G4S said three of its Afghan employees were also killed, while three Gurkhas and three Afghans were injured. Considering the length of the fighting, many feared a bigger death toll. The Taliban's public relations team was quick to exploit the attack, grossly inflating the number killed to 40 foreigners and Afghan police, as is their habit.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman reached by phone, said it was a symbolic act timed to coincide with the annual celebration of the day in 1919 when Afghanistan won the right to run a foreign policy independent of Britain.
"We attacked the buildings because we want to remind the British that we won our independence from them before and we will do it again," he said.
Even as fighting raged at a compound a few hundred metres from the once grand campus that used to house the British embassy in the heyday of empire, over at the presidential palace Hamid Karzai and senior Afghans and foreign diplomats marked the anniversary with a small ceremony.
It was not until 2pm that the British ambassador declared the operation to retake control of the British Council was over and every insurgent killed.
But bursts of automatic gunfire could still be heard from inside the compound nine hours after the siege began, although the shots were almost certainly not due to firefights with insurgents.
On the street outside soldiers, including a member of Britain's special forces with his face hidden a scarf, angrily tried to get journalists to move away.
Shortly afterwards Afghan officials invited the media forward to photograph the grisly remains of one of the attackers which they laid out for the scrum of reporters. For good measure one of the policemen spat on the corpse.