Suicide squad targets Afghan 'peace jirga'
A Taliban suicide squad armed with rockets on Wednesday targeted an Afghan peace conference hosted by President Hamid Karzai that is seeking consensus on how to end nearly nine years of war.
As Karzai addressed more than 1,600 delegates and Western diplomats at the "peace jirga", rockets exploded and gunfire erupted near the huge air-conditioned tent in Kabul.
Officials said suicide bombers wearing explosive-packed vests and dressed in women's burqas carried out the unsuccessful attack on the event, which was guarded by 12,000 security personnel.
"The area is under our control now and is cleared," interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AFP. "Two attackers aged between 17 and 20 years had managed to come to the area using burqas and had entered a house under construction."
A third would-be attacker was taken into custody.
At least five explosions, believed to be caused by rockets, interrupted the opening of the three-day jirga that Karzai hopes will achieve consensus on how to end the war with the Taliban.
The militia, which is opposed to peace talks until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan, claimed it had dispatched four suicide bombers armed with guns and rockets who threatened the jirga from a nearby rooftop.
Karzai left the event on schedule after his address, in his armoured convoy.
Delegates took a scheduled break for his departure, but did not return to their seats for about three hours, with some taking refuge beneath trees from the rocket attacks.
Karzai appealed to delegates to advise him on how to bring the impoverished country, blighted by three decades of war, out of the current conflict and encourage the Taliban to disarm.
"The Afghan nation is looking at you. They await your decisions, your advice so that you can show the Afghan nation the way to reach peace, to rescue Afghanistan from this suffering and pain," Karzai said.
"Let's free ourselves from this killing and build this land with consultation from the ulema (religious leaders) and elders of this country."
Karzai said most of the Taliban fighting his administration were those "who fled their homes under oppression, either by us or the foreigners. I call on them -- brothers, come back to your homeland, it's over."
He reiterated his long-held position that he would not reconcile with those he called "Al-Qaeda terrorists".
Critics have warned that the jirga's outcome is likely to be limited, not least because the Taliban are not officially attending.
But Farouq Wardak, Karzai's education minister and one of the organisers, said that with "1,700-1,800 delegates, this is more than we expected. We're sure the results will be great."
It is already the third such conference to bring together Afghanistan's complex mix of ethnic, tribal, religious, geographical and gender interests since the US-led invasion brought down the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime.
Karzai's Western allies, led by the United States, have described the jirga as a milestone in Afghan politics.
The number of US and NATO troops is set to peak at 150,000 by August as part of a strategy designed to boost government authority in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to start drawing down troops from mid-2011.
The Taliban have dismissed the conference as a propaganda stunt and claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks.
The jirga comes after Al-Qaeda announced the death of its number three leader and Afghanistan operations chief, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, believed to have been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan late last month.
Britain said one of its marines had been killed on Wednesday while patrolling in Sangin district in the troubled province of Helmand. He was the third member of Britain's 40 Commando to have been killed in eight days, all by explosions near Sangin.
The death brings to 290 the number of British troops killed since operations in Afghanistan began in October 2001. Of these, at least 255 were killed as a result of hostile action.
© 2010 AFP