- Associated Press - Sunday, May 23, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | The Taliban claimed responsibility Sunday for a nighttime assault on Kandahar Air Base that wounded several 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 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 Kandahar base was the second ground assault on a major NATO installation last week. Officials said several 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. 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 55 yards away 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 officially released.

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.

On Tuesday, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy in the capital, killing 18 people, including five American troops and a Canadian NATO service member. 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 Karzai government also wants to step up peace overtures to the insurgents. President Hamid 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 could include people sympathetic to the insurgents.

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