NATO commander: 27 dead from Kabul attack

Afghanistan's security forces fire at the building where armed attackers exchanged fire with security forces in Kabul, Sept. 13, 2011.
Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images

KABUL, Afghanistan - The top commander for NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan says the Kabul attack has left 27 dead — including Afghan police, civilians and insurgents.

The 20-hour assault in the heart of the Afghan capital ended on Wednesday morning.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen says of those killed, 11 were Afghan civilians, with more than half of them children. Allen says five Afghan police officers were also killed.

He says that 11 insurgents also died in the battle, seven of them in the clearing operation inside the building where the attackers were holed up near the U.S. embassy. Four other attackers served as suicide bombers.

The sophistication and vehemence of the attack, in which insurgents fired rockets into the U.S. Embassy compound from a nearby unfinished high-rise where they may have stored heavy weapons ahead of time, raised fresh doubts about the Afghans' ability to secure their nation as U.S. and other foreign troops begin to withdraw. Afghan forces have nominally been in control of security in the capital since 2008, but still depend heavily on foreign forces to help protect the city — and it took heavy involvement by U.S. and NATO forces to route out the latest attackers.

And spectacular attacks in the well-protected capital have become more common. This week's strike was the third deadly attack in Kabul since late June.

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The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault. Kabul's deputy police chief said it was likely the Pakistan-based Haqqani network carried it on behalf of the extremist group. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker also blamed the Haqqanis, who have emerged as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's stability, working from safe areas across the border in Pakistan's tribal region.

It took 20 hours through the night for Afghan, U.S. and NATO troops to six insurgents holed up in the 12-story building on the Abdul Haq traffic circle, pounding them with barrages from attack helicopters as police and soldiers worked their way up floor by floor. From their roost, the insurgents had clear shots on the nearby U.S. Embassy and a nearby NATO compound, battling Afghan forces in a gunfight that lit up the night with tracer fire.

At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Afghan Interior Ministry announced that the final holdouts had been killed. Police could be seen clapping their hands in celebration on the building's roof, while others carried the mangled bodies of six insurgents down flights of rough concrete stairs and piled them into the back of a waiting ambulance.

Six or seven rockets hit inside the embassy compound during the fighting, and a rocket-propelled grenade that hit an embassy building wounded four Afghans, CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers in Washington. No NATO or U.S. Embassy employees were hurt.

Key questions were how the attackers managed to get their heavy arsenal so close to the embassy — into a building that Afghan and U.S. officials had long recognized was a potential platform for an attack. It appeared likely that either weaponry had been stored in the building ahead of time or that some insurgents had entered in advance with a supply of guns and ammunition.

The attack began after midday Tuesday when a minivan packed with insurgents was stopped at a checkpoint at Abdul Haq square, which is about 300 yards (meters) from the U.S. Embassy, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

There were a series of large explosions starting around 1:30 p.m. At least one militant set off a suicide blast near the square. Others drove the vehicle into the partially constructed high-rise, which they took over.

Explosions shook the neighborhood as insurgents fired rockets from the building. There was a simultaneous barrage of explosions around the nearby Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, home to a number of other foreign missions. NATO and Afghan forces started to slowly move up floor by floor in an attempt to ferret out the fighters and U.S. helicopters provided fire from overhead.

The insurgents' Toyota minivan had been rigged with explosives and was likely also loaded with weaponry and ammunition, said Hashmat Stanekzai, a Kabul police spokesman. In the van, police also found burqas — the body and face-covering robe worn by many Afghan women in public — that the attackers likely used as diguises to get past police checkpoints, he said.

U.S. and NATO officials praised the Afghan forces for successfully routing the enemy, but it was also clear that international troops played a major role.

Crocker said the attack would not affect the transfer of security responsibilities from the U.S.-led military coalition to the Afghan security forces. Foreign forces are to completely withdraw their combat troops by the end of 2014.