KABUL, Afghanistan — Standing before the country's power brokers and tribal elite Wednesday morning, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was about 10 minutes into his nationally televised appeal for peace when the Taliban responded with a rocket that slammed into a nearby hillside.
"Don't worry," Karzai coolly told the gathering before the attack escalated. "We've heard these kinds of things before."
Assailants with suicide vests, rockets and machine guns disrupted the opening ceremonies of a national peace assembly by attacking the cavernous meeting tent at Kabul's Polytechnic University campus. Even with thousands of Afghan police and troops protecting the city, the attackers fought for more than 45 minutes.
Amid the gunfire and explosions, the 1,600 Afghan delegates to the three-day assembly carried on.
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"The president was really brave," said Shukria Barakzai, an independent lawmaker who's part of the gathering. "Usually when there is a threat or an attack he leaves the hall, and this time he said, 'We don't care if there are rockets or missiles.' "
The Taliban said the attack was meant as a message that the national gathering was a useless fig leaf for Karzai and the U.S.-led international military coalition that backs him.
Unfazed, the president reiterated his appeal for Taliban insurgents and their militant allies to lay down their weapons.
"Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here," Karzai said in a direct appeal to the Taliban as the attack unfolded.
The rare gathering, known as a jirga, is meant to boost the president's nascent efforts to launch substantive peace talks with Afghan insurgents.
By Friday, Karzai expects the specially selected assembly delegates to give him a national mandate for his plan to end the nearly 9-year-old war, which has caused the deaths of at least 10,000 Afghan civilians, thousands of Afghan soldiers and nearly 1,800 members of the international military coalition, more than 1,000 of them Americans.
"They cannot stop the jirga," said Safiya Sidiqi, a lawmaker from eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province.