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Afghan Government Defends Controversial Firing of Top Security Officials

The Afghan government is defending President Hamid Karzai's decision on Sunday to fire two of the country's top security officials because of last week's Taliban attack on the peace jirga (conference). The removal of the interior minister and the intelligence chief comes as foreign forces try to work closely with Afghan officials to take back Taliban-controlled territory in the south.

When President Karzai announced the resignations of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and National Directorate of Security Chief Amrullah Saleh, he said the two had offered unsatisfactory explanations for attacks on the peace talks.

No one was hurt when Taliban rockets landed near the meeting tent. Afghan security forces killed two attempted suicide bombers.

"This could have been a national chaos, a national crisis," said Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omer on Monday. "Someone had to take responsibility for this. While we understand that this was a loss for the government, losing two important people, in the meantime it is a gain for the people of Afghanistan that their government is taking responsibility," Omer said as he justified the firings.

The fired officials have extensive experience in the Afghan government and were respected by foreign countries operating in Afghanistan. Amrullah Saleh has been the country's top intelligence official since 2004 and has worked closely with U.S. intelligence agencies in helping to kill or capture wanted militants.

The reaction from the United States was careful. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded to their departure by calling it an internal Afghan matter. But Gates added he hopes Mr. Karzai appoints replacements of equal caliber.

Western news agencies report that U.S. officials privately are expressing concern about losing two officials with such deep and well regarded experience fighting the Taliban. Media reports also have suggested the two Afghan officials may have been removed in part because they disagreed with President Karzai's approach to opening negotiations with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, President Karzai has announced a new policy on dealing with suspected Taliban detainees. In what he is calling "the first step to implement the peace jirga proposals," Mr. Karzai said that officials will review cases against all Taliban suspects and release those being held without proper evidence.

Presidential spokesman Omer clarified the commission's responsibilities on Monday. he said it would
not release any prisoners on its own, but would review each detainee's situation according to the judiciary system and then report its findings to the president. Omer said officials would later decide what to do with the prisoners.