- Pentagon says the attack "bears all the hallmarks" of the Haqqani network
- The U.S. Embassy condemns the attack and praises Afghan forces
- Militants kill 15 civilians, a police officer and three security guards, police chief says
- It's the latest in a string of high-profile strikes this week
Taliban militants attacked a hotel near Kabul on Friday and seized dozens of hostages, sparking a fierce gunbattle with Afghan and NATO troops that left 26 people dead, authorities said.
The standoff, which lasted 11 hours, ended with the deaths of all seven militants, police said. The militants killed 15 civilians, a police officer and three security guards, Kabul police Chief Mohammad Ayoub Salangi said.
By the end of the siege, police had rescued all the remaining 50 civilians held hostage in the hotel, according to Salangi.
Earlier, he had said there were five militants, but he revised the number as more details emerged.
Police said they found burqas in the vehicle the attackers used to bring in explosives to the hotel, an indication that some were dressed as women. A burqa is an outer garment worn by Muslim women to cover their bodies.
Terrified civilians fled when the gunmen struck the Spozhmai hotel about midnight Thursday, with some jumping into a nearby lake to avoid the bloodshed. The hotel was hosting an outdoor dinner that drew a large number of guests when the attack occurred.
Afghan forces had moved slowly overnight to avoid civilian casualties.
"We did not take any action in the dark because of the risk to civilians," Salangi said.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force said there was no immediate indication of coalition casualties.
In a written statement, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul praised the professionalism of Afghan forces and condemned the attack as "the latest in the insurgents' murderous campaign against innocent Afghan civilians, especially women and children."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the strike "bears all the hallmarks" of the Haqqani network. The network, a movement with close ties to the Taliban and based in neighboring Pakistan, is one of the militant groups fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan.
"The Haqqani network, which has the backing of elements within the Pakistani security establishment, is one of Afghanistan's most experienced and sophisticated insurgent organizations," the Institute for the Study of War said. "Although the Haqqani network is officially subsumed under the larger Taliban umbrella organization led by Mullah Omar and his Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqanis maintain distinct command and control, and lines of operations."
The attack follows recent strikes aimed at coalition troops and Afghan security forces. Bombings in two eastern provinces Wednesday killed at least 29 people, including three American soldiers.
It also comes nearly a year after an insurgent attack on Kabul's Hotel Inter-Continental killed nine attackers and 12 others.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the hotel attack targeted Westerners.
Attackers are armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, he said in an e-mail while the siege was under way.
"Every night people come here for different types of debauchery, but on Thursday night, the number increases, including foreigners who come here and they hold anti-Islamic ceremonies," Mujahid said. "Tonight, according to our information, a number of ISAF and embassy diplomats from foreign countries have been invited by some senior Kabul administration officials and are now under attack."
He said the Taliban fought government forces outside the hotel and had killed tens of government officials and foreigners, but the insurgents regularly inflate casualty figures.
The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist militia, once ruled most of the country.