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Afghan leader says Taliban attack won’t block peace talks

Karzai dismisses assault on palace as small setback

KABUL — 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 last week would derail Afghanistan’s nascent peace process.

In a joint news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, he urged the militant group to return the negotiating table. He dismissed the attack as ‘‘peanuts’’ and said it would not deter his government from seeking peace.

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The Taliban have indicated they are willing to open peace talks with the United States 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 sport utility vehicle 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 press conference with Cameron 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,’’ he 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 United States holds effective control in Afghanistan, but the Americans are hoping to bring the two sides together. The United States has said it would meet first with the Taliban and to get the process going; those talks would 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.

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