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Assault in Afghan capital leaves 27 dead

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A military helicopter belonging to coalition forces flies around a building during a gun battle with Taliban militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday Sept. 14,2011. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq) A military helicopter belonging to coalition forces flies around a building during a gun battle with Taliban militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday Sept. 14,2011. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The 20-hour insurgent assault on the heavily guarded Afghan capital left 27 dead — including police, civilians and insurgents — when fighting finally ended Wednesday morning, officials said.

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.

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.

Eleven Afghan civilians were killed in the battle, more than half of them children, along with five Afghan police officers, said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Besides the insurgents in the building, four other attackers served as suicide bombers in coordinated attacks in several areas of Kabul — three of them killed by police before they could detonate their explosives.

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.

A team of six police officers had been charged to guard the building — a 12-story concrete structure that looks like it was destined to become office space or a shopping center but where building had been halted for some time. Wahidullah Ahmad, a policeman who was overseeing the scene after the attack, said he did not know if any of those guards were among those killed.

One witness said the attackers were equipped with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly a mortar. They also boasted an 82 mm recoiless rifle, a powerful weapon that usually fires shells designed to destroy tanks and is very heavy to carry, much less rush up a building's stairs in the heat of an assault.

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.

AP photos show international troops inside the building throughout the clearing operation, apparently directing both the Afghan police alongside them and passing information to helicopters overhead.

It took the helicopter gunships to take out three of the last four insurgent holdouts, an Afghan police inspector at the site, Shafiqullah Ibrahim, said after inspecting the bodies.

The concrete walls of the building were pocked with bullet holes and patches of blood soaked into gravel in a number of spots suggested the insurgents had been wounded and continued fighting. All six attackers looked young — perhaps in their late teens or twenties — and had beards and wore traditional cotton tunics and pants. Two bodies were found on the fifth floor, apparently having died earlier in the fight, the rest on the 10th, where a room had an open view of the U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds and nearby Afghan government buildings.

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.

He said it also underlines the problem of the safe havens that the Taliban's Haqqani allies enjoy in the lawless tribal areas over the border in Pakistan, including north Waziristan. Nearly all Taliban attacks in and around the capital have been carried out by the Haqqanis — including a weekend truck bombing in eastern Wardak province that wounded 77 U.S. soldiers.

"It's tough when you're trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders," Crocker said. "It's complicated, it's difficult but clearly for a long term solution those safe havens have to be reduced."

U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan to go after Haqqani militants. But relations with Islamabad have not been good, particularly after the U.S. raid in May that killed al-Qaida terror network leader Osama bin Laden

Pakistan's army spokesman declined comment on Crocker's statement.

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Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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