KABUL Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed a call for talks with Taliban insurgents on Sunday, shortly after a security scare forced him to cut short a commemoration speech when gunshots were fired outside the venue.
State television showed Karzai, who has survived several assassination attempts by suspected Taliban members, being led away unharmed from Kabul's packed sports arena by his U.S.-trained bodyguards as spectators lay flat in the stands.
A government official told the audience to be calm, saying that what they had heard were not gunshots but stones being thrown by people who could not get into the heavily guarded arena.
However, defense ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi said shots were fired outside the stadium, though he did not know by whom or whether there were any casualties.
"Yes, shots were fired. The president is safe," he said.
Some witnesses said police had fired into the air to disperse those who wanted to force their way into the stadium, but there was no word of any casualties.
The ceremony was held to mark the sixth anniversary of the assassination of anti-Taliban Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood in 2001 by a suspected al Qaeda suicide bomber two days before the September 11 attacks on the United States.
As Karzai was making his speech, a bodyguard stepped up and spoke to the president, TV showed. Karzai then walked away from the podium, asking his bodyguard, "What is the story?".
SPECTATORS DIVE FOR COVER
People ran for cover thinking there had been an attack, a Reuters journalist at the scene said.
An estimated 25,000 people, including cabinet members and foreign diplomats, had gathered at the stadium, which is not far from the presidential palace.
Karzai was whisked straight back to his palace, where he was due to meet visiting Latvian President Valdis Zatlers. After the meeting the pair held a joint news conference, at which Karzai called for talks with his Taliban foes. He made no reference to the security scare.
"We don't have any formal negotiations with the Taliban. They don't have an address. Who do we talk to?" Karzai told reporters.
"I wish there (was) someone that will eventually come out with a telephone number, with an address, with a leadership structure that we can go and talk to," he added. "If I can have place where to send somebody to talk to, an authority that publicly says it is the Taliban authority, I will do it."
Karzai has repeatedly offered talks with the Taliban, but the guerrillas have refused.
Violence has escalated in Afghanistan in recent months. More than 7,000 people have been killed during the past 19 months, the bloodiest period since the resurgent Taliban's overthrow in 2001.
One coalition soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in the restive southern province of Helmand on Sunday, the U.S. military said, a day after two British soldiers and more than 30 Islamist Taliban guerrillas were killed in separate incidents in the province.
The U.S.-led military says coalition forces have killed hundreds of Taliban militants in a spree of clashes in recent weeks. The Taliban have admitted some losses, but say Afghan and foreign troops vastly exaggerate enemy death tolls.
The United Nations said on Sunday that 103 suicide attacks were carried out between January and the end of August this year, putting the country on course to exceed a record 123 attacks during the whole of 2006.
(With reporting by Simon Gardner and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul)