Kabul: NATO said on Thursday that a senior commander in the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network wanted over this week`s deadly attack on a leading hotel in the Afghan capital had been killed in an air strike.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) identified Ismail Jan as deputy to the senior Haqqani commander inside Afghanistan and said he was killed in the eastern province of Paktya on Wednesday.
It was not possible to confirm Jan`s death or position independently and ISAF provided no immediate details on how they knew he had been killed.
It said security forces tracked his location based on intelligence reports from Afghan government officials, citizens and "disenfranchised insurgents" before calling in the air strike.
The US-led force accused Jan of providing material support for Tuesday`s attack on the Intercontinental in Kabul, frequented by Westerners and Afghan government officials.
Heavily-armed militants stormed the hilltop hotel late Tuesday, sparking a ferocious battle involving Afghan commandos and a NATO helicopter gunship that left at least 21 dead including the nine attackers.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but NATO said it was carried out in conjunction with the Haqqani network, blamed for a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul and considered the most potent enemy in the east.
A judge, a Spaniard -- reportedly a pilot for a Turkish airline -- police and hotel staff were among those killed in the attack, which has renewed questions about security as US forces prepare to start withdrawing this year.
NATO said Jan was killed with "several" other Haqqani fighters the day after the attack in Paktya, which borders Pakistan`s semi-autonomous district of North Waziristan, where the Haqqani leadership is based.
NATO said Jan had also led 25 to 35 fighters in attacks on troops in the Khost-Gardez area along the border after moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan in late 2010, one of the deadliest fighting grounds in the decade-long war.
The military said "initial reports" indicated that no civilians were hurt in Wednesday`s air strike, although air attacks have brought the US-led military into sharp opposition with the Afghan government over civilian casualties.
US President Barack Obama announced last week that he would be withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of summer 2012 and Washington has voiced hope about reaching a peace deal to end a decade of fighting.
The Haqqanis, estimated to have 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, has been blamed for some of the most spectacular attacks of the insurgency, including an al Qaeda double agent suicide attack that killed seven CIA operatives in 2009.
It was founded by the now-ageing Jalaluddin Haqqani, a warlord who made his name during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, when he received funding from Pakistan and the CIA.
He allegedly helped Osama bin Laden elude American capture after the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, but his ruthless son Sirajuddin now effectively runs the network.
The Haqqanis are seen as operationally independent from the Taliban but part of a broad coalition of groups operating under its aegis.
This could pose a problem in any substantive peace talks -- the United States says contacts with the Taliban are at a very early stage -- if the Haqqanis did not agree to end their part in the insurgency.