Taliban attack as Karzai launches peace bid

Rockets and suicide attacks mar an attempt by the Afghan president to hold a 'jirga' of tribal leaders and elders.

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Afghan police have surrounded a house in Kabul, near a huge "peace jirga" assembly, where an interior ministry spokesman said "terrorist activity" was taking place. "There is terrorist activity going on in a house in Afshar. The house has been surrounded by police," said Zemarai Bashary. The house is close to where 1,600 delegates from across the country are meeting to decide on a strategy for the President Hamid Karzai to pursue peace with Taliban militants and end the war, now in its ninth year. A militant spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said a group of four suicide attackers disguised in Afghan army uniform had opened fire and attacked the "jirga". He said they were aiming "to sabotage and destroy this peace jirga." He said: "Our fighters will continue fighting to the death." Witnesses said gunfire was continuing. Even as Mr Karzai launched his ambitious peace plan the Taliban demonstrated their disdain by firing a series of rockets at the Afghan capital. Unpopular at home despite an election victory last year that was mired in controversy, Mr Karzai called a "jirga" of tribal leaders, elders and other notables to forge national consensus for overtures to the Taliban.

But minutes after he began unveiling his plans, a rocket landed in an open field near the giant marquee where the event was being held. There were no immediate reports of casualties. "Sit down, nothing will happen," Mr Karzai told nervous delegates as some stood to leave. "I have become used to this," said Mr Karzai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts. "Everyone is used to this." The sound of gunfire could also be heard around the venue as Mr Karzai finished his speech and left in a convoy of armoured vehicles.

The peace jirga, as the centuries-old gathering is known in Pashto, has drawn 1,300 delegates, but noticeably absent will be representatives of the insurgents - although there will certainly be sympathisers. With the insurgency at its most intense since their US-led overthrow in 2001, the Taliban remain confident they can outlast the latest foreign invasion in Afghanistan's long history of conflict.

"Obviously, the jirga will provide yet another pretext for America to continue the war in Afghanistan, rather than bringing about peace in the country," the Taliban said in a statement on the eve of a gathering to which they had not been invited, but would not attend if asked. Their confidence comes despite a surge in US forces that will push the size of the foreign military to around 150,000, with an offensive planned in coming weeks to tackle the Taliban in their southern heartland of Kandahar.

* Reuters