Wednesday, August 5, 2009

KABUL | Taliban militants unleashed a wave of rockets at Kabul’s international airport and government buildings Tuesday in an attempt to shatter the sense of security in the Afghan capital less than three weeks before presidential elections.

The rockets missed their targets, lightly wounding a girl and a man with flying glass, but a Taliban spokesman said the group soon would launch more attacks in Kabul, which has been largely spared the violence roiling the south and east of the country.

Incumbent President Hamid Karzai made a rare campaign appearance in the heavily Pashtun east to appeal for votes from the ethnic group that provides most of the support for the insurgents. He told a crowd of several thousand in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, that Western forces must release suspected Taliban supporters and fighters held without charge for months and even years.

The U.S. military holds an estimated 600 prisoners at a detention center at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul as “unlawful enemy combatants,” denied the right to legal representation. Their status is a growing source of tension between the U.S. and Mr. Karzai, who increasingly has been criticizing U.S. forces for the detentions, along with raids on homes and air strikes that kill civilians.

Mr. Karzai issued one of his strongest demands yet for the mostly Pashtun detainees’ freedom.

“The Afghan people are happy because you have paved roads, built schools, and the salaries of the government are paid by the international community and United States,” he told the crowd in a field before a mosque. “But we want all our prisoners to be released. We need dignity in our houses and dignity for our women.”

Mr. Karzai, who has made few campaign appearances, was once highly popular inside and outside Afghanistan but has lost luster in recent years because of endemic government corruption, a huge narcotics industry and the unyielding violence.

He called for the Taliban to negotiate with the government and participate in the election but said the two sides remained too far apart for talks to be successful.

The president condemned a suicide attack Tuesday in Zabul province, where a bomber detonated his explosive vest beside a vehicle carrying Afghan security agents, killing one agent and four civilians. Eighteen people were wounded, police said.

Several large-scale attacks have hit high-profile targets in Kabul, but the city has been mostly spared the regular bombings and gunbattles common across much of Afghanistan.

A Taliban spokesman claimed that militants fired nine rockets at the airport and two at an Afghan military headquarters near the U.S. Embassy to show that the government cannot ensure security in the capital.

In Brussels, NATO’s governing body approved a plan to set up a new headquarters in Kabul to handle daily operations.

The move is aimed at easing the pressure on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and is similar to the model in Iraq, where a four-star American general had overall command of multinational forces, and a three-star general ran daily operations.

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