Reports by Afghan security forces of a thwarted suicide attack outside the venue of this week's national grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, are adding to fears that militants will stop at nothing to disrupt the high-profile event.
The incursion -- by as many as four would-be attackers, according to various reports -- came on the heels of a disputed claim by Taliban militants that they had obtained and published details of official security plans for the Jirga.
In a statement issued late today, the Taliban warned that participants in the assembly would face "harsh penalties" and would be considered “national traitors” if they voted for U.S. bases in the country. It described the Jirga as an instrument of “invaders and their mercenaries.”
The national assembly, which is set to last at least two days, was called by President Hamid Karzai to gauge national opinion on a possible U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when foreign combat troops are scheduled to leave, as well as the issue of negotiating with the Taliban.
A similar event one year ago was disrupted during Karzai's opening speech when rocket- and gun-wielding attackers struck, killing three civilians in the crossfire but leaving Jirga participants unscathed.
Lawmaker Shukaria Barakzai told RFE/RL that she was notified by Afghan officials that she was on numerous insurgent "hit lists," but said she had no intention of missing the Loya Jirga.
"I am 100 percent for participating in any Jirga that seeks peace for the people of Afghanistan and helps them in planning their future," Barakzai said.
Security forces announced that the suspected suicide bomber was shot and killed near the tent in Kabul where roughly 2,000 tribal elders and political leaders were expected to gather from November 16.
"Police asked him to stop but he kept walking toward the Jirga area," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi was quoted as saying by the dpa news agency. "They intended to carry out a suicide attack near the Jirga tent."
Sediqqi was quoted as saying the suspect was carrying a bag of explosives at the time.
The same agency quoted another security official as saying three other suspects were detained. Other sources put the number of accomplices at two.
News of the thwarted attack came amid lawmakers' complaints that they had received threatening text messages warning against attending the assembly.
Threats Target Participants
Afghan officials meanwhile rejected claims that Taliban militants had acquired the government's security plans for the affair.
Afghan Intelligence Service spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said those maps and a list of the service's security arrangements published by the Taliban on its website on November 13 were fabrications.
"The plan that we have drafted -- and I have seen it -- is 100 percent different from the one that has been sent to the media," Mashal told journalists in the capital.
NATO forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings also said he believes the documents are not genuine.
The Taliban's claims came amid reports that Afghan lawmakers had received threatening text messages warning against attending the event.
Lawmaker Muhammad Daoud Hasas described the text message he received, apparently sent from a mobile phone number traced back to neighboring Pakistan.
"Their message says that anybody participating in this 'American Loya Jirga,' as they call it, will meet death," Hasas said. "Every lawmaker and government official has received this threat."
Safia Siddiqi, a spokeswoman for the forum's commission, claimed that there were no signs that militant threats would deter participants from attending the event.
"This morning the invited participants were queuing up to [register to participate in the event]," Siddiqi said. "This shows that the people want to do what they have come for here. I don’t see them doing anything else."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner did not comment on security threats to the Jirga, but intimated that he expected the assembly to “reaffirm” the U.S.-Afghan partnership:
"The U.S. and Afghanistan are close partners and allies and we have great confidence that this Loya Jirga is going to reaffirm that strong partnership," he said.
The Afghan government has a spotty track record in providing security to such events. At the last Jirga, in June 2010, insurgent rocket attack and gunfire disrupted Karzai's opening remarks. Security forces killed two militants who were wearing suicide vests. Three civilians were killed in the shootout, but 1,500 participants of the Loya Jirga remained safe.
written by Abubakar Siddique based on Radio Free Afghanistan and additional agency reports