KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S.-led military coalition Thursday blamed a notorious Pakistan-based terrorist group for this week's spectacular assault on a hilltop Kabul hotel and said it had killed one of the group's senior commanders, who was suspected of involvement in the attack.
The International Security Assistance Force didn't say how it had determined that the Haqqani network was responsible for the siege Tuesday night at the Kabul Intercontinental hotel, which left 10 civilians, two policemen and all nine assailants dead.
But it said a senior Haqqani commander, Ismail Khan, was suspected of providing material support for the assault, and that he and several other Haqqani fighters had been killed Wednesday in a "precision airstrike," only hours after Afghan police had retaken control of the hotel.
"The Haqqani network, in conjunction with Taliban operatives, was responsible for the Tuesday night attack on the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel which killed 12 people, including a provincial judge," the ISAF statement said..
Meanwhile, Afghan officials announced Thursday that they'd assume security responsibilities in seven provinces and cities, including Kabul, beginning July 14.
The quick schedule for the transition — previous announcements had suggested it wouldn't begin till later in July — seemed designed to put to rest any suggestion that Tuesday's assault would delay the hand-over.
Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the chairman of the commission that's overseeing the security handover, said the July 14 transition would be largely ceremonial because Afghan forces had been gradually taking control in the seven areas since President Hamid Karzai announced the transition plan in March.
Karzai and President Barack Obama have much at stake in the change in security responsibility. Karzai has argued for months that Afghan forces are strong enough to combat Taliban insurgents, and Obama announced earlier this month an aggressive withdrawal plan that will see 33,000 American troops leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Both leaders have said they plan for the international military presence in Afghanistan to end in 2014, a deadline that would be in doubt if the Taliban were to mount a serious challenge to government control in areas where NATO forces are no longer present.
The seven areas are all considered relatively peaceful, though some have seen an uptick in violence since Karzai announced the transition. Three of the areas are cities, Mazar-i-Sharif in the country's north, Mehterlam, the capital of Laghman province in the east, and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south.
The other four areas are provinces with reputations for relatively little Taliban activity. They include Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, Panjshir, the birthplace of the legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the north, and Herat province.
Kabul, the fourth province, has seen three spectacular terrorist operations since April, including Tuesday's hotel assault, that involved breaching heavily secured facilities. One attack was on the Defense Ministry, and another in the country's main military hospital.
It wasn't clear from Ghani's announcement what the transition to be undertaken this month would involve. While he said it was largely ceremonial, he also said it would take about a week. The hand-overs in all seven locations will begin simultaneously, he added.
Ghani's announcement came at the end of a two-day meeting of Afghan security officials that had been set to take place at the Intercontinental. A Taliban spokesman who claimed credit for the assault said that a reception for conference attendees had been the intended target.
The government moved the meeting to a government media center and conducted the gathering as scheduled.
While Ghani said Afghan police were fully prepared to assume responsibility, noting that they had the necessary "equipment, training and numbers," the country's intelligence chief warned that provincial officials should expect violence.
In his remarks, Rahmatullah Nabeel seemed to be pointing a finger at Pakistan as a likely backer of efforts to disrupt the transition.
"Some neighboring countries do not want that Afghans themselves provide their own security and will always try to derail and disrupt this process," he said.
That comment dovetailed with the ISAF announcement of Haqqani network involvement in Tuesday's hotel attack.
The Haqqani network is based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region. U.S. officials have long called it the most resilient of Afghanistan's terrorist groups and say that it's allied with the Taliban and al Qaida. Afghan government officials frequently criticize Pakistan as not doing enough to stop Haqqani-allied fighters from crossing into Afghanistan.
The Haqqani network has been blamed for a wide range of attacks in Kabul, including the bombing of the Indian Embassy in 2008 and a 2009 attack on a well-known shopping mall.
Afghan-led security forces have captured or killed more than 80 Haqqani leaders and facilitators since January, primarily in the Paktika, Paktia and Khost areas.
Initial reports indicate that no civilians were harmed in the airstrike Wednesday, the ISAF statement said.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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