, KABUL, Aug 19 – Taliban gunmen struck inside the heavily guarded Afghan capital Wednesday, police said, as the Islamist militia waged a bloody countdown to the war-torn country’s second presidential election.
Security forces fanned out on high alert in a bid to protect Kabul from a spike in Taliban violence, after two suicide attacks and rocket strikes on the relatively peaceful city just days before Thursday’s vote.
Western-backed President Hamid Karzai hopes to win by a big enough margin to avert a run-off vote, but his government demanded a media blackout for fear that reporting of the violence could hurt turnout among 17 million voters.
Claims of vote-buying have fuelled concerns about the credibility of the election, along with rampant corruption and Karzai’s reliance on fractious warlords who stand accused of rights abuses.
Armed police forced their way into a Kabul bank after it was stormed by at least three gunmen. After a battery of gunfire, police dragged out bodies of three attackers, feet first, bumping them down the stairs.
"We have killed three of the attackers inside the bank," Kabul criminal investigation police chief Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayedzada told AFP. "They were Taliban," he said.
The interior ministry initially called the attackers "robbers or thieves" but later released a statement acknowledging they were "terrorists".
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bank siege, which they called part of a series of attacks designed to sabotage Western-backed moves to install democratic order in one of the world’s most lawless nations.
About 20 Taliban fighters and suicide bombers had entered Kabul, awaiting orders to attack, militia spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AFP. Such claims have in the past proven to be untrue.
The attacks were likely to stoke fears of Afghans about whether it is safe to go out to vote despite the authorities’ reassurances and an intensified anti-insurgency offensive by US and allied forces.
"It (security) is of concern but to get free of this situation, we must cast our vote," said a 25-year-old Kabul woman employed by an international company who gave her name only as Massouda.
But others said the risks were not worth it.
"I will not let my family to go and vote in such a bad situation," said Abdul Qadir, a 40-year-old cigarette seller in Kabul where Tuesday’s suicide blast killed a NATO soldier and nine Afghans, two of them UN staffers.
The government meanwhile came under fire for its demand for a halt to reporting of election-day violence.
Its wording in local language Dari amounted to an outright prohibition of reporting on any violence, but the English version simply "requested" the media to refrain from such coverage.
And with the Taliban making good on their threats of election violence, Afghan and international journalists reported being harassed and even beaten by security forces while trying to cover incidents.
Seventeen million Afghans have registered to elect a president Thursday for only the second time in history and 420 councillors in 34 provinces across the largely rural and impoverished country.
It is a difficult process in a country where more than 70 percent of people are illiterate, and bound into fierce tribal and religious allegiances.
Voting centres are due to open at 7:00 am (0230 GMT) Thursday, but it was still unclear how many sites would be operational despite the deployment of 300,000 Afghan and foreign troops to protect voting.
While Karzai has been tipped to hold on to power, an energetic campaign by ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has boosted the chance of a run-off that election authorities say would take place six weeks down the line.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on all eligible voters to cast their ballots in the polls to help strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions, and urged all participants — including observers — to ensure a smooth vote.
Two electoral workers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan, where a US soldier became the fourth NATO soldier to die in violence on Tuesday.
In the centre of the country, the provincial governor in Ghazni said NATO attack helicopters mistakenly killed four policemen.