KABUL, Afghanistan – Sensing unrest outside a packed stadium, Afghanistan’s president abruptly cut short a speech Sunday as police fired shots into the air in an attempt to restrain a crowd trying to enter, officials said.Shortly after being rushed off the podium, President Hamid Karzai said security in Afghanistan was deteriorating and renewed a call for negotiations with Taliban militants.
The sound of gunfire rang out as Karzai abruptly ended his speech at Kabul’s central sports stadium, sending a murmur through the crowd inside and prompting some in the audience to start to flee.
Officials told the crowd to remain calm, and said someone had thrown stones against a metal door.
But Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said police fired into the air to prevent a restless crowd outside the stadium from entering. Azimi said the 15,000-person stadium was already full. No injuries were reported.
Karzai had been speaking at a memorial ceremony for anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massood, who was killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
In his speech, Karzai told the stadium crowd that countries around the world were trying to help Afghanistan govern itself.
“We should use this to complete our desire. What is that desire? Afghanistan standing on its own feet, to feed itself and to secure itself,” he said, as shouts and skirmishes could be heard in the background.
The president then abruptly closed, saying, “Dear sisters and brothers, respect for all of you. We’re ending the session, goodbye.”
A security official for one of the dignitaries on stage with Karzai told The Associated Press that a crowd of men from eastern Afghanistan was pushing on the stadium gate, ignoring shouted instructions from Karzai’s security team to move back.
The official, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of his job, said members of the crowd had fired shots first â€” apparently into the air â€” and that police responded by doing the same.
Karzai’s security adviser, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, said the president was not harmed.
Only an hour later, at a news conference with Latvia’s president, Karzai said the security situation in Afghanistan has been getting worse, though that statement didn’t appear to be linked to the gunshots fired at the ceremony.
“The security situation has become seriously troubled, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the people don’t want progress or the people don’t want the presence of the international community,” he said. “It is terrorists who are attacking us.”
Karzai also reiterated that Afghanistan was willing to negotiate with Taliban militants as a way to end the spiraling violence engulfing the country’s south and east, a call he’s made several times previously.
“They don’t have an address. Who do we talk to?” Karzai said.
Afghanistan has seen a spike in violence this year, especially in the south. More than 4,200 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence in 2007, according to an AP count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials.
In southern Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed a coalition soldier and wounded four on Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said.
The attack in Helmand province, the world’s largest opium poppy-growing region, came while the forces were carrying out combat operations about 5 miles west of Sangin. The soldiers’ nationalities were not released pending notification of family members.
Late Saturday in Helmand, a suicide attacker on a motorbike, targeting an American security firm, killed one employee and wounded three, the Interior Ministry said. It did not disclose the casualties’ nationalities.
Also on Saturday, suspected Taliban militants attacked a World Food Program convoy in Nimroz province, and a subsequent battle left two police and 11 insurgents dead, said Gov. Ghulam Dastager Azad.