KABUL (Reuters) - A marathon siege in Kabul's diplomatic enclave ended on Wednesday with the killing of two gunmen who had fought off Western and Afghan forces for 20 hours and showered rockets on embassies in a dramatic show of insurgent strength.
The duo were the last survivors of a squad of about 10 suicide fighters who launched the longest and most wide-ranging attack on the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
The battle near the U.S. embassy and three suicide attacks other parts of the city were a stark reminder of the militants' resources and reach as foreign forces start to return home.
At least 11 civilians were killed, more than half of them children, said General John R. Allen, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Five policemen also died.
He dismissed the raid as a military failure but conceded that the hours of explosions and fierce gun battles, which angered and frightened Kabul residents and grabbed headlines around the world, were a propaganda victory for the Taliban.
"I'll grant that they did get an IO (Information Operations) win," he told reporters, using a military term for perceptions and public relations.
The insurgents had holed up in a part-built multi-storey building and launched their attack on Tuesday afternoon by firing rockets toward the U.S. and other embassies and the headquarters of NATO-led foreign forces.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said six or seven rockets hit inside the embassy perimeter during the early hours of the attack but the range meant they had not posed a serious threat.
"They were firing from at least 800 meters away and with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that's harassment. That's not an attack," he told journalists in Kabul.
Three suicide bombers also targeted police buildings in other parts of the city on Tuesday afternoon.
The U.S. and British embassies and the NATO-led coalition said all their employees were safe.
The attacks took place as foreign troops start handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces to pave the way for a full departure of NATO-led combat soldiers by the end of 2014.
President Barack Obama has promised to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. Other nations are mapping their own exits.
But violence is at its worst since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties.
Afghan security forces backed by NATO and Afghan attack helicopters fought floor-by-floor in the 13-storey building, which six or seven insurgents appeared to have booby-trapped.
They had arrived disguised under burqas, the traditional face-veiling robe worn by Afghan women, in a car packed with explosives, and entered the high-rise after shooting a security guard, officials said.
"As our country is traditional and Islamic, there is a special respect for women and the enemies exploited this to get to the building," Kabul Police Chief Ayoub Salangi said.
The gunmen then hid from helicopters and government and foreign troops in lift shafts and a maze of small rooms.
The group was armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide bomb vests, a Taliban spokesman said, but the time they held out prompted speculation they had previously hidden weapons in the building.
"These attacks needed organization, planning, bringing significant weapons...into the city and this can't be done if there isn't complicity with internal security forces," said Karim Pakzad, a researcher at IRIS think-tank in Paris.
"These areas are the most protected in Kabul."
Explosions were interspersed with gunfire all afternoon on Tuesday and went on past dawn on Wednesday. Residents of nearby apartments stayed indoors and tried to comfort panicked children as helicopters flew low overhead.
"It would go silent for 30 to 35 minutes and then there were explosions and the sound of heavy machine guns," one Reuters journalist said.
Ambassador Crocker and General Allen said they believed the attack was launched by the Haqqani network, one of three Taliban-allied insurgent factions fighting in Afghanistan named after its leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
"We believe by virtue of the complexity of the attack and the way it was executed, that this probably was a Haqqani instigated attack," Allen said.
They are thought to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, and are believed to have been behind many high-profile attacks in Kabul.
Suicide bombers targeted the British Council headquarters in mid-August, killing nine people, and in late June, insurgents killed 10 people in an assault on the Intercontinental hotel.
The network gets some support in lawless territories on the Pakistani side of the border although the Pakistani government has long dismissed suggestions of links between the militant group and its security agents.
Allen said the United States was pushing Pakistan to limit cross-border infiltration.
"We seek to have the Pakistani government place greater pressure on the Haqqani network, to keep them on the east side of the border, to keep them in Pakistan so we can prevent these kind of attacks, high-profile attacks," he said.