KABUL (AFP) – A Taliban suicide squad armed with rockets on Wednesday targeted a landmark Afghan peace conference hosted by President Hamid Karzai in a bid to seek a consensus on how to end nearly nine years of war.
At least five explosions, believed to be caused by rockets, and gunfire erupted near the giant air-conditioned tent where 1,600 delegates from across the country and Western diplomats attended the opening of the “peace jirga”.
One of the jirga organisers said suicide bombers dressed in women’s burqas targeted the event, which was being protected by 12,000 security personnel, but that the attack was unsuccessful.
“Three suicide bombers wearing burqas entered a house which was under construction. They fired one RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) towards the tent,” Ghulam Farooq Wardak told delegates.
“Thank God, two of them were killed, paying for their crimes. The third has been captured,” he said.
The Taliban claimed it had dispatched four suicide bombers armed with guns and rockets who were threatening the jirga from a nearby rooftop.
Two blasts were heard as Karzai delivered his opening address in which he condemned the Taliban for bringing suffering and oppression, while a third took place later about 200 metres (yards) away from the venue, AFP reporters said.
Karzai left the jirga on schedule after his address, driven away in his customary armoured convoy.
Intensifying gunfire rattled the vicinity of the tent in the southeastern Kabul suburbs, where the interior ministry said that Afghan police had surrounded a “terror” cell holed up in a house nearby.
“There is terrorist activity going on in a house in Afshar. The house has been surrounded by police,” said interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary.
Sayed Kabiri, chief doctor at a Kabul hospital, said two people had been admitted with injuries caused by the rocket attacks.
The Taliban’s nine-year insurgency against Karzai’s government and 130,000 US-led foreign troops is now at its deadliest and the group last month vowed to unleash a new campaign of attacks on diplomats, lawmakers and foreign forces.
The militant group — which is opposed to peace talks until the US-led troops leave Afghanistan — had dismissed the conference as a propaganda stunt.
“We have four suicide attackers placed on the top of a tall building near the jirga tent. They are threatening the jirga tent,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“They are using rockets, they have small arms and have strapped explosives to their bodies,” he said.
Karzai had appealed to the jirga delegates to advise him on how to bring the poverty-stricken country, blighted by three decades of war, out of the latest conflict and encourage the Taliban to disarm.
“We need a national consultation, a peace consultation all over Afghanistan,” Karzai said.
“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.”
The meeting is the third such conference uniting Afghanistan’s complex mix of ethnic, tribal, religious, geographical and gender interests since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.
Hundreds of bearded men in tribal dress and turbans sat in rows and the estimated 300 women delegates were mostly seated in a separate section.
Critics have warned that the outcome is likely to prove limited and ordinary Afghans have been divided about the possible results.
Karzai’s Western allies, led by the United States, have expressed support for the jirga as a milestone in Afghanistan’s political maturity.
Western public appetite is waning for a war that has killed almost 1,800 foreign troops and shows no sign of abating.
The number of US and NATO troops will peak at 150,000 by August as part of a strategy designed to reverse Taliban momentum and boost government authority in southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
US President Barack Obama has said he wants to start drawing down troops from mid-2011.
After the election of a chairman and two deputies, delegates will be divided into 28 groups, each with a spokesman to present their ideas to the general forum.
The jirga is expected to end on Friday with a declaration on what steps should be taken to end the insurgency, what groups should be included in the process and how they should be approached.