KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - The U.S.-led coalition on Thursday blamed an al-Qaida affiliated network working jointly with Taliban fighters for a deadly attack on a luxury hotel in Kabul - an assault that raised doubts about the ability of Afghan forces to handle security as foreign troops withdraw.
The coalition also reported that a leader with the Haqqani network suspected of having provided assistance, including weapons, fighters and training, to the gunmen who attacked the Inter-Continental hotel was killed Wednesday night in a precision airstrike. Ismail Jan, the deputy to the senior Haqqani commander inside Afghanistan, and other Haqqani fighters died in the airstrike in Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia province, the coalition said.
Nine suicide bombers launched an attack on the hotel late Tuesday, triggering an hours-long standoff with Afghan security forces, who were assisted by coalition mentors and NATO helicopters. In all, 20 people were killed, including the nine attackers.
The Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has ties to both al-Qaida and the Taliban, has emerged as one of the biggest threats to stability in Afghanistan.
Jan, who moved from Pakistan into Afghanistan late last year, used to command 25 to 35 fighters who attacked Afghan and coalition forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border in Khost and Paktia provinces.
Jan's location in Paktia was pinpointed with the help of tips from Afghan government officials, citizens and insurgent informants, the coalition said.
The Kabul hotel assault was one of the biggest and most complex attacks ever orchestrated in the Afghan capital and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.
The attack came on the eve of a two-day conference about plans for Afghan forces to take the lead responsibility for security in seven areas of Afghanistan starting next month. Security is to be shouldered by Afghan security forces across the whole nation by the end of 2014 when international forces are to be assigned to support roles or sent home.
At the end of the conference on Thursday, Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the nation's transition commission, urged Afghans not to fear, but rally around transition. The first phase of transition will start in the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east.
In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district.
"We have a clear goal - that our security forces must assume responsibility and leadership for security in 2014," Ghani told reporters, adding that the goal line was just three years away.
"We must introduce a sense of urgency both on the part of the Afghan government and the Afghan people and on the part of the international community. ... Reaching the goal is going to require us changing - changing in ways where Afghans increasingly are in the lead and where the international community becomes supportive."
In violence on Thursday, 20 Afghan civilians were killed when the bus they were riding hit a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, said Musa Rasoli, deputy police chief in Nimroz province.
Roadside bombs also killed two NATO service members in separate attacks in southern Afghanistan, raising to 64 the total number of foreign troop deaths in Afghanistan this month. Also a man, woman and four children were killed when the car in which they were riding hit a roadside bomb in Marjah district of Helmand province, also in the south.
One civilian also was wounded when the bus hit the roadside mine, Rasoli said. He said the bus was traveling west on Thursday from Kandahar, the largest city in the south, to Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan.
The accident at 4 p.m. occurred in the same place where two different buses hit roadside bombs last year, killing about 30 people. The route is frequently used by Afghan police, army and U.S.-led coalition forces, Rasoli said.
Elsewhere, militants captured two de-mining workers and seized five of their vehicles Thursday in Gardez, according to Afghan Technical Consultants, one of five Afghan non-governmental organizations that receive direct funding from the United States to carry out mine clearance operations.
ATC director Eblaugh Kefatullah told The Associated Press that the de-miners were working in a field around 11 a.m. when gunmen approached them, searched their pockets, confiscated their cell phones and apprehended them and their vehicles.