South Asia

Violence mars Afghanistan peace meeting in Kabul

Militants have tried to attack a national peace meeting being opened by President Hamid Karzai in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Three rockets landed close to the venue. Officials said two attackers were killed and one captured.

Mr Karzai is aiming to use the three-day "peace jirga" to enlist support for his plan to offer economic incentives to reformed Taliban militants.

Taliban chiefs have dismissed the talks and threatened delegates with death.

Mr Karzai's opening speech was interrupted by the sound of explosions and gunfire some distance away.

He told the delegates: "Someone is trying with a rocket perhaps... Don't worry about it, let's proceed."

Three rockets fired at the giant tent at a university in Kabul where the meeting is being held landed 100m (110 yards) away.

The UN's top envoy to Afghanistan - who is at the meeting - said that none of the Afghans moved as the rockets landed.

"All stood [still] including 300 women, they were defiant. The signal was 'we are used to this, we are ready for it but we want to continue'," Staffan de Mistura told the BBC. The meeting is continuing.

An official in charge of organising the event, Farooq Wardak, said three heavily-armed militants dressed in burkas were involved in the attack.

He said two died in fighting outside the venue and one was captured. No delegates were hurt.

A representative of the Taliban told news agencies that they carried out the attacks on the jirga.

The Taliban have been waging a nine-year battle to overthrow the US-backed government and expel the 130,000 foreign troops there.

Traditional solution

Up to 1,600 delegates - including tribal elders, religious leaders and members of parliament from all over the country - have convened for the traditional meeting.

But they are far outnumbered by the 12,000 security personnel guarding against any Taliban attack.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says one of the aims of the jirga is to bolster the position of President Karzai but there is also growing realisation in Afghanistan and the West that to end the conflict will mean reaching some sort of arrangement with the Taliban.

President Karzai appealed to the Taliban, saying that their actions were keeping the international troops they resent in Afghanistan.

"You should provide the opportunity for the foreign forces to leave," he told the meeting.

"Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here. As long as you are not talking to us, not making peace with us, we will not let the foreigners leave."

The jirga is due to finish late on Friday, with a declaration expected on what steps should be taken to end the insurgency, which groups should be included in the process, and how they should be approached.

Image caption Delegates at the jirga were said to be unflinching as the rockets landed

President Karzai has proposed offering an amnesty and reintegration incentives to low-level Taliban who accept the constitution.

He has also offered to negotiate the removal of some Taliban from a UN blacklist, and to give certain leaders asylum in another Islamic country for the purpose of holding peace talks.

On the eve of the conference, the Taliban issued a statement saying that the jirga did not represent the Afghan people and was aimed at securing the interest of foreigners.

Another insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, led by ex-Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called the conference a "useless exercise".

"The participants of the jirga are state favourites," said a statement released by the group. "They have no power of decision. It is only a consultative jirga - without any participation of the mujahideen (resistance fighters)."

Both militant groups have refused to take part in peace talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Nato, US and Afghan forces are preparing their biggest offensive against the rebels in the southern province of Kandahar.

Foreign troop numbers are set to peak at 150,000 by August before US President Barack Obama starts a planned withdrawal of troops in July 2011.