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Explosions, Gunfire Mar Opening of Afghan Peace Jirga

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Sean Maroney

The streets of Kabul echoed with insurgent gunfire and explosions late Wednesday morning as representatives from all over Afghanistan met for the first day of the National Consultative Peace Jirga.

Afghan organizers say the goal of the peace conference is to reach a consensus for a road map to reconcile with Taliban insurgents and others fighting against the government and coalition forces. But insurgents did not want to talk.

As President Hamid Karzai addressed the assembly, a rocket explosion outside the massive tent constructed in western Kabul briefly interrupted him. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The 1,600 delegates reacted calmly as the president noted that this was not the first time they had heard this type of thing. Police later said the explosion was caused by a rocket fired near the jirga campus.

Following the attack, Mr. Karzai continued his speech and took a moment to address Taliban insurgents in their native language of Pashto.

He said the Taliban is welcome in their own homeland, but he urged them to not hurt Afghanistan or themselves. He said all Afghans are brothers, and they should approach each other in peace. He also promised to listen to their advice on how to build Afghanistan.

The president also said the jirga has given Afghans tremendous hope, and that in the next couple of days, the delegates will have a chance to deliver a message of peace and friendship, not only for Afghanistan, but for the rest of the world.

Following Mr. Karzai's speech, jirga organizers rushed members of the media out of the area after another rocket whistled overhead and exploded within 100 meters of the tent.

Sounds of sporadic gunfire rang out in a nearby neighborhood, as Afghan helicopters circled overhead.

Taliban officials said they had sent four, heavily armed suicide bombers to target the jirga.

Government officials said security forces shot and killed two suicide bombers trying to infiltrate the assembly wearing burqas, and they arrested a third.

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zamary Bashary also said Afghan forces had surrounded a home near the conference site where the remaining militants were hiding.

The jirga is Afghan-led, but foreign diplomats, including the top U.S. military commander in the country, General Stanley McChrystal, attended the opening ceremony.

The United Nations' special representative for Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, also attended and spoke with reporters about the Taliban attack on the gathering.

"The Taliban are not sitting inside the tent. They are the ones who should be sitting one day, once they've given up on this type of violence and once they've accepted at least one or two rules of the game," said Mistura.

Prior to the conference, the Taliban dismissed its importance, calling the current Afghan government "powerless" and demanding that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

Critics of Mr. Karzai's government also say the jirga does not address the concerns of ordinary Afghans.

Despite the violence, delegates are meeting in smaller committees, where they will work to find a consensus for peace during the next couple of days.

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