Gunfire and explosions rocked the Afghan capital today as President Hamid Karzai hosted a landmark gathering of 1,600 leaders to seek a national consensus on how to end nearly nine years of war.
Three explosions, including at least two caused by rocket fire, and gunfire were heard within minutes of the three-day "jirga" opening under what had been billed as rigorous protection enforced by 12,000 security personnel.
Two blasts were heard as Karzai delivered his opening address and condemned the Taliban for bringing suffering and oppression to Afghanistan, while a third took place later about 200 metres (yards) away, said AFP reporters.
Bursts of gunfire could also be heard in the vicinity of the giant air-conditioned tent in the southeastern Kabul suburbs, they said.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts, the Taliban have dismissed the jirga as a propaganda stunt and are opposed to peace talks until US-led foreign troops Afghan soil.
The Islamist militia's nine-year insurgency against Karzai's Western-backed government is now at its deadliest and the group last month vowed to unleash a new campaign of attacks on diplomats, lawmakers and foreign forces.
Karzai appealed to the jirga delegates to advise him on how to bring the poverty-stricken country, blighted by three decades of war, out of the latest conflict and encourage the Taliban to disarm.
"We need a national consultation, a peace consultation all over Afghanistan," Karzai said.
"The Afghan nation is looking at you. They await your decisions, your advice so that you can show the Afghan nation the way to reach peace, to rescue Afghanistan from this suffering and pain."
Hundreds of bearded men in tribal dress and turbans sat in rows and a portrait of Karzai hung above the blue-carpeted stage with a shield carrying the words National Consultative Peace Jirga written in Dari and Pashto.
Women delegates, who at 300 account for about 20 percent of the total, were mostly seated in a separate section as Afghanistan's conservative social mores traditionally keep women apart from men to whom they are not related.
The meeting is the third such conference uniting Afghanistan's complex mix of ethnic, tribal, religious, geographical and gender interests since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.
But critics have warned that the outcome is likely to prove limited and ordinary Afghans have been divided about the possible results.