- Associated Press - Saturday, May 22, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban claimed responsibility Sunday for a nighttime assault on Kandahar Air Base that wounded a number of coalition soldiers and civilian employees at the biggest NATO base in southern Afghanistan.

Also Sunday, a government official confirmed that a three-day conference to discuss peace prospects with the Taliban has been postponed from next Saturday until June 2. It was the second delay for the conference, known as a “peace jirga,” which is expected to roll out government incentives for insurgents who agree to give up the war.

The Saturday-night attack against the Kandahar base was the second ground assault on a major NATO installation this week. Officials said a number of soldiers and civilians were wounded but gave no figures. They said there were no confirmed deaths among the more than 20,000 people who live and work at the base.

Militants unleashed rockets and mortars about 8 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EDT Saturday) and then tried unsuccessfully to storm the northern perimeter of the base, about 300 miles southwest of Kabul. One of the rockets hit a shop-lined boardwalk where soldiers socialize in the evenings.

A bloodstain could be seen on the walkway outside a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant on the boardwalk Sunday morning, said Maura Axelrod, a reporter with HDNet who was inside the base.

A U.S. official said the rocket hit about 50 meters from the restaurant, in front of a coffee shop on the boardwalk. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been released officially.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told the Associated Press that its fighters attacked the base from two sides and fired more than 15 rockets.

The attack forced a delegation from Britain’s new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to divert from Kandahar.

Instead, Defense Secretary Liam Fox, Foreign Secretary William Hague and International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell flew into Camp Bastion in neighboring Helmand province. Britain has more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The attack was the third major assault on NATO forces in Afghanistan in six days and followed a Taliban announcement of a spring offensive against NATO forces and Afghan government troops. The announcement was the insurgents’ response to plans by the Obama administration to squeeze the Taliban out of their strongholds in the Kandahar area, the Taliban’s birthplace.

Last Tuesday, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy in the capital, killing 18 people, including five American and one Canadian service members. The next day, dozens of Taliban militants attacked the main U.S. military base at Bagram Air Field, killing an American contractor in fighting that lasted more than eight hours.

As military operations accelerate, the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai also wants to step up peace overtures to the insurgents. Mr. Karzai plans to unfold his program during the peace jirga, which will bring together tribal elders and community leaders to discuss ways to end the war.

Conference spokesman Gul Agha Ahmedi confirmed the new dates for the conference but gave no reason. A private Afghan television station, Tolo, said the delay was to allow more time for delegates to reach Kabul.

No Taliban leaders are expected to attend, but some of the delegates may include people sympathetic to the insurgents.

The Obama administration supports economic and other incentives to individual insurgents willing to give up the struggle and abandon al Qaeda. But Washington is skeptical of peace talks with the Taliban leadership, hoping to first weaken the militants on the battlefield.

The peace jirga was to have been held in early May but was pushed back until after Mr. Karzai’s visit earlier this month to Washington, where he discussed his peace plans with Mr. Obama and other top U.S. officials.

In the east, meanwhile, the police chief of Andar district in Ghazni province was killed in a gunbattle with militants Sunday, said Yasouf Saraji, the district administrator.

On Saturday, five civilians were killed when an old mine exploded in the field they were tilling in Kapisa province, and two Afghan soldiers were killed the same day in a gunbattle with insurgents in Paktia province, officials said.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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