Published: Jun 02, 2010 12:43 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 02, 2010 9:44 AM EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Taliban suicide attackers struck at

the national peace conference as it opened Wednesday in the Afghan

capital, waging gunbattles near the venue. At least two attackers

were killed but no delegates were hurt, officials said.

The attack, including rocket fire, started minutes after

President Hamid Karzai began his opening address to some 1,600

dignitaries gathered for the conference, in which he appealed for

rank-and-file Taliban members to stop fighting for the sake of the


The Taliban, which had earlier threatened to kill anyone who

took part, claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to

The Associated Press, saying they intended to sabotage the

three-day conference.

The conference, known as a peace jirga, continued despite the


Karzai hopes it will bolster him politically by endorsing his

strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and

reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in

Washington about whether the time is right for an overture to

militant leaders.

But the attack underscored the weak grip of Karzai's government

in the face of the Taliban insurgency, which has grown in strength

despite record numbers of U.S. forces in country.

In his speech, Karzai said years of violence and infighting had

caused widespread suffering that had driven many ordinary Afghans

to join the Taliban and another major insurgent group,

Hizb-i-Islami, out of fear. He appealed to them to renounce


"There are thousands of Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, they are not

the enemies of this soil," Karzai said.

He said continuing fighting would only prevent the withdrawal of

international forces from Afghanistan.

"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," Karzai said.

About 10 minutes into his speech, Karzai was briefly interrupted

by an explosion outside, which police said was a rocket. Karzai

heard the thud, but dismissed it, telling delegates, "Don't worry.

We've heard this kind of thing before."

Soon afterward, an AP reporter nearby heard a loud explosion and

saw smoke rising from a second apparent rocket attack that struck

about 100 meters (yards) from the venue, a huge tent pitched on a

university compound.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard to the south of the venue, and

security forces rushed to the area. Helicopters flew overhead.

Farooq Wardak, a government minister responsible for organizing

the jirga, said three militants dressed in burqas, carrying

explosives and armed with guns and at least one grenade launcher,

were involved in the attack. He said two died in fighting outside

the venue and one was captured.

However, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said all

three attackers were killed.

Kamaluddin, a police officer in the area where the conflict

happened who uses one name, said one of the attackers blew himself

up during the battle.

Abdul Gaffar Saidzada, chief of criminal investigation for Kabul

police, said three police were wounded in the fighting. No

civilians were hurt.

Wardak said the militants operated from a building about one

mile (1.5 kilometers) away from the venue.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid gave a slightly different

account of the attack. He said four suicide attackers disguised in

Afghan army uniforms opened fire in an attempt "to sabotage and

destroy this peace jirga."

While militants are strongest in the volatile south of the

country, where NATO forces are preparing a major operation in the

Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, insurgents have repeatedly shown

they can strike in the heavily defended capital as well.

"Unfortunately this shows the weakness of the government, and

the weakness of the security forces, that they were unable to

provide enough security for this consultative peace jirga," said

Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a lawmaker attending from Parwan province.

A prominent civil society activist was skeptical the conference

could help bring peace. Delegates include individuals with links to

militants but not active members of the Taliban and other insurgent


"I'm not very hopeful that we will come up with a workable

mechanism to go for peace. The reason is we don't have the

opposition with us. It's obvious from their attacks," said Sima

Samar, the head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission.

Wardak rejected Taliban claims the jirga was stacked with Karzai

supporters and designed to rubber-stamp the president's plans for

reconciliation. He said the possibility of opening talks with the

Taliban would only be pursued if the idea was supported by broader

Afghan society.

"This jirga is to advise the government who we can talk to and

who we cannot talk to," he said.

The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file

insurgents but has been skeptical of a major political initiative

with insurgent leaders, believing that should wait until

accelerated military operations have weakened the Taliban on the

battlefield. U.S. officials believe the Taliban leadership feels it

has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning

the war.