KABUL, Afghanistan — The insurgents who besieged the U.S. Embassy here for nearly 24 hours came prepared for a long standoff: They brought blankets, water bottles and mango juice packaged in Pakistan, which lay strewn on the 13th floor of the unfinished high-rise they'd holed up in.
They carried a sack of hand grenades, too, which Afghan police said also were manufactured in Pakistan. When the fighting was over, Afghan medics found the bodies of six bullet-riddled insurgents, one of whom was so overweight that their stretcher couldn't hold him and he had to be carried off in an old quilt.
Hours after the brazen, daylong assault on the embassy and NATO headquarters finally ended around 9 a.m. Wednesday, the attackers' vantage point, from which the entire city is visible, was stained with blood and littered with bullet casings and scraps of clothing.
It took some 20 hours of often-intense gunfire before Afghan forces, with help from U.S.-led international soldiers and helicopters, subdued the insurgents and cleared the building. No U.S. or Western officials or soldiers were hurt, but officials raised the death toll sharply Wednesday, saying that 16 Afghans had been killed, including five police officers. Eleven insurgents — including at least four suicide bombers who attacked police buildings elsewhere in Kabul — also died, security officials said.
The 14-story high-rise is a few hundred yards from the fortress-like U.S. Embassy compound. Both are in Kabul's high-security diplomatic enclave, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Wednesday that roughly six or seven rocket-propelled grenades had struck within the embassy's perimeter. It was the second major assault on foreign forces in less than a week, and again underscored the challenges facing Afghan security forces as the U.S-led international coalition begins drawing down its forces.
Crocker downplayed the seriousness of the incident, calling it "harassment rather than a direct attack."
"This really is not a very big deal," Crocker said Wednesday. He called it "a hard day for the embassy and my staff, who behaved with enormous courage and dedication, but look, you know, a half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away ... if that's the best they can do, you know, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness."
Crocker blamed the attack on the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which has links to the Taliban. He said it highlighted the need for Pakistan and U.S. forces to "bring these groups under control" and go after its havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"It's tough when you're trying to fight an insurgency that has a lot of support outside the national borders," Crocker said. "But again, if this is the best they can do, I find both their lack of ability and capacity — and the ability of Afghan forces to respond to it — actually encouraging in this whole transition process."
Afghan police also discovered and defused a minibus packed with explosives that they said had been part of the attack. Inside the bus they found burqas, which they said the insurgents had worn to disguise themselves as women to get through security checkpoints.
At the scene of the attack, Afghan police officers, too, said that the insurgents were Pakistani, right down to the sandals they wore. A police officer named Qubat, who like many Afghans uses just one name, displayed a hand grenade that he said was made in Pakistan, along with the bullets and RPGs the attackers used.
The heavyset insurgent, who lay facedown next to the staircase between the 12th and 13th floors, wore a dark-green vest and the loose white trousers known as shalwar, which were stained with blood. He had bullet wounds in his arms and his lower legs.
Barely two hours after the attack, dozens of Afghans — from middle-aged men to young children — had gathered at the building and were looking up toward the 13th floor.
A group of senators from the Afghan parliament's Defense Committee were visiting the site and congratulated the Afghan police on their bravery
"We thank the police for their actions. They did what was needed," said Mohammad Daud Eshas, a senator from the southern province of Zabul. "For those martyred in the attack, we express condolences for their family. The police showed they now can defend their country. We do not need anyone (else) if we have such police."
Other Afghans, however, said the incident terrified them.
"The sound of RPGs and AK-47 continued until 4 a.m. My family and I did not sleep the whole night," said Haseeb Parwani, a 15-year-old boy who lives across the street in a Soviet-built apartment block.
Nasir Ameeni, another neighbor, said Afghan and coalition forces had deployed helicopters to fire on the insurgents and that the battle went on well into the morning.
The half-finished high-rise, which has been under construction off Kabul's main Jalalabad Road for about two years, is the project of a private developer who planned to turn it into offices, residents said. But its prime location in the well-guarded Wazir Akbar Khan area and the fact that its top floors overlooked the U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds made it obvious even to passers-by that insurgents could use it one day.
Many such projects in fast-growing Kabul are in violation of the city's master plan and therefore illegal. The legal status of the high-rise couldn't immediately be determined.
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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