KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that his government is still willing to start talks with the Taliban, easing concerns that a brazen attack by the group on the presidential palace earlier this week would derail the country's nascent peace process.
In a joint news conference in Kabul with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, he urged the militant group to return to the negotiating table. He dismissed the attack as "peanuts" and said it would not deter his government from seeking peace.
The Taliban have indicated they are willing to open peace talks with the U.S. and the Afghanistan government and opened an office in Qatar a little more than a week ago for possible negotiations. But at the same time, they have not renounced violence and attacks have continued across Afghanistan.
Their ability to carry out well-planned and bold operations was driven home Tuesday when a SUV carrying four Taliban fighters managed to make it into a highly secured area by the gates of the palace. The four Taliban gunmen battled Afghan security forces for about an hour before being killed; a second vehicle involved in the attack blew up at a checkpoint on the way into the area.
The brazen attack on the center of Karzai's government raised concerns that the Afghan leader, who has a reputation for political posturing, might demand difficult concessions for talks. The peace process has already been delayed over a dispute over the flag and sign outside the Qatar office.
Karzai told reporters at a joint news conference with Cameron in Kabul that moving ahead with talks was the only way to end nearly 12 years of war.
"The attack that was organized near the presidential palace will not deter us from seeking peace," Karzai said. "We've had them killing the Afghan people, but still we ask for peace."
Karzai downplayed the significance of the Taliban attack at the heart of the Afghan government, in which all eight militants and three security guards were killed.
"Comparatively speaking this was quite an irrelevant attack," he said. "We're more concerned when they attack Afghan civilians, we're more concerned when they attack Afghan schools and children - I wish they would spend all their time attacking the presidential palace and leave the rest of the country alone."
The Taliban have refused to negotiate with Karzai's government in the past, saying the U.S. holds effective control in Afghanistan, but the Americans are hoping to bring the two sides together. The U.S. has said it would meet first with the Taliban and to get the process going, and those preliminary talks would then be followed by negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government.
In a nod to Karzai's concerns that Afghanistan might be being squeezed out of the process, Cameron assured him that "this peace process is for Afghanistan to determine, it must be Afghan-owned, Afghan-led."
He, too, urged the Taliban to open talks.
"I believe a window of opportunity is open and I will urge all of those who renounce violence, who respect the constitution, who want to have a voice in the future prosperity of this country to seize that opportunity," he said.
The possibility of talks at the new office in Doha got off to a rocky start, when the Taliban opened it under the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and the flag it used while ruling Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Karzai and other Afghans reacted sharply, saying that agreements had been violated and that the office was more akin to a rival embassy than a bureau for peace negotiations.
The Taliban have since been forced to remove the offending flag and sign but no peace talks have yet begun and the incident served to highlight the tensions between the various sides.
Karzai responded by suspending bilateral talks with the U.S. on what kind of a presence it and other coalition forces would keep in Afghanistan after 2014.
Karzai told reporters that he had talked about the suspended talks with President Barack Obama in a video conference on Tuesday, but that they remained on hold for now. He did not say when he planned to restart them, but Afghanistan needs the security agreement even more than the U.S. does so it seemed likely they would not remain tabled for long.
Karzai said that Obama told him he hoped to have the deal agreed upon by October.
Elsewhere, authorities said a suicide car bomber attacked a NATO convoy, killing two Afghan civilians.
Farah provincial governor's spokesman Abdul Rahman Zhawandi said Saturday a man and woman on a motorcycle riding near the convoy were killed when the attacker struck Friday evening. Five civilians were wounded.
In central Oruzgan province, 20 Taliban fighters and one police officer were killed in an operation late Friday, police spokesman Fareed Ayal said. He did not provide further details.
And in southeastern Zabul province, three civilians were killed and two wounded when a tractor hit a buried roadside bomb, according to deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasoolyar.
And in a reminder that Afghanistan's conflicts go beyond the struggle between Kabul and the Taliban, two rival groups supported by former warlords clashed near the office of the governor in the northern province of Takhar.
One group has been protesting since Thursday against Karzai's government's choice of a new police chief, while the other supports it.
Hafizullah Safi, the provincial director of health, said three bodies and 53 injured demonstrators have been brought to hospitals. Most people injured have been hit with sticks or stones, but several also suffered bullet wounds, he said.