Militants attack as Afghan peace conference starts

Security forces battled insurgents including at least one suicide bomber outside a national peace conference just as President Hamid Karzai opened the three-day meeting today in the Afghan capital.





A Nato spokesman said several insurgents were shot near the venue, and Afghan police said a suicide bomber detonated explosives, killing himself. There were no immediate reports of other casualties in the fighting, including among participants of the conference.



The multi-pronged attack started within minutes of Karzai beginning his opening address to some 1,600 dignitaries gathered for the conference, known as a peace jirga, in a huge tent pitched on a university compound in the city.



The Taliban, which had earlier threatened to kill anyone who took part, claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to The Associated Press.



Karzai was hoping that the jirga would bolster him politically by supporting his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in Washington on whether the time is right for an overture to militant leaders.



About 10 minutes into his speech, Karzai was briefly interrupted by an explosion outside, which police said was a rocket fired from the west of the Afghan capital. Karzai heard the thud, but dismissed it, telling delegates, "Don't worry. We've heard this kind of thing before."



Soon afterward, an AP reporter nearby heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rising from a second apparent rocket attack that struck about 100 metres from the venue.



AP reporters gathered at a hotel near the venue to cover the conference via video link heard bursts of gunfire to the south of the venue.



Police officer Kamaluddin said a suicide bomber detonated explosives a few hundred metres from the tent, and that shooting between insurgents and Afghan forces was being reported. The only reported casualty was the bomber.



Security forces were rushing through the area and helicopters were flying overhead.



Some insurgents were shot, but reports were unclear as to how many, said a spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Joseph T. Breasseale.



Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Wednesday that a group of four suicide attackers disguised in Afghan army uniforms had opened fire in an attempt "to sabotage and destroy this peace jirga."



Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said Afghan forces were surrounding a house about 500 metres from the conference venue where militants were apparently holed up.





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