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Afghan Peace Conference Continues as Violence Rocks South

Delegates from across Afghanistan are meeting for a second day in Kabul, pushing ahead with a peace conference to end more than eight years of war.

The question of direct talks with Taliban leaders are expected to dominate Thursday's agenda. President Hamid Karzai said during his opening remarks Wednesday that al-Qaida members and those who have killed civilians will not be forgiven.

The gathering's opening was disrupted Wednesday by the sound of loud explosions as Taliban militants fired missiles near the meeting site in western Kabul. The attack took place as Mr. Karzai was giving his opening address to the crowd of nearly 1,600 delegates.

Missiles fell near the huge tent where the "jirga," or assembly, is taking place, but no one was hurt. Officials said security forces killed two would-be bombers who tried to infiltrate the meeting disguised as women.

Organizers say the goal of the peace conference is to reach a consensus for a road map to reconcile with Taliban insurgents and other extremist groups that are attacking the government and U.S. and NATO troops.

But the jirga has been criticized as a publicity stunt organized by President Karzai. His most serious challenger in last year's elections, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has dimissed the gathering as a public relations exercise and is not attending. Other critics say the delegates were hand-picked by the Afghan government, adding that no active members of insurgent groups are taking part.

Meanwhile, violence continued in southern Helmand province this week, killing at least 8 civilians. An Afghan spokesman said four civilians died after getting caught in a shootout between Afghan security forces and militants in Marjah. A roadside bomb killed another four in Nawzad district.

U.S. troops launched Operation Moshtarak to retake Marjah from militants in February. The mission has pushed some insurgents out of the area, a traditional Taliban stronghold, but last week the top British commander in southern Afghanistan said it could take another three to four months to completely secure Marjah.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.