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Sporadic attacks across Afghanistan as polls open

SPORADIC attacks hit Afghan towns as polls opened today for an anxiously awaited presidential election that Taliban fighters have vowed to disrupt, but the United Nations said the turnout was encouraging.

"The vast majority of polling stations have been able to open and have received voting materials," said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the UN mission in Kabul.

"There have been a number of attacks, particularly in the south and east of the country. But we are seeing queues forming at polling stations in the north, also in the capital, as well as, encouragingly, in the east."

Shops and businesses were closed and around-the-clock squads of extra police checked the few cars on the streets in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai was one of the first to vote in an election which could prove the toughest test yet of his own mandate and his nation's fragile democracy.

He cast his ballot under tight security in a polling station at a high school near his presidential palace in Kabul, telling reporters he hoped for an outright majority in a single round.

"One round will be in the interest of the nation," he said.

Karzai faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Polls show Karzai winning by a strong margin, but possibly falling short of an outright majority and a second round run-off likely in October.Official preliminary results are not expected forn at least two weeks.

The election is also a test for US President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.

In a series of statements on Wednesday, the Taliban said they had infiltrated 20 suicide bombers into Kabul and would close all the country's roads, taking no responsibility for the deaths of anyone who defied them to go to the polls.

In nothern Baghlan province, Taliban guerrillas attacked a police post, killing a district police chief, and clashes were ongoing, a provincial security official said, requesting to remain anonymous.

Provincial officials confirmed that scattered rockets had hit the cities of Kandahar, Kunduz and Ghazni, and there were reports of rocket strikes in other towns.

A bomb went off in the provincial police headquarters in northern Takhar province causing damage but no casualties, provincial police chief Ziauddin Mahmoudi said.

Siddique of the UN mission said there had also been a roadside bomb attack in Helmand province and some polling stations had been attacked in Khost.


The extent of any election violence is hard to predict. The tempo of attacks has clearly increased in the weeks leading to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and a building siege inside the normally secure capital.

Security in most of the country is still better than it was in Iraq when several successful elections were held there, but the Taliban may be able to damage the vote, even without big attacks, if their threats keep people from the ballot box.

More than 30,000 US troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the size of the international force above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.

US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, could ask for more when he issues a report next week. He told the BBC: "The situation is serious and we need to turn the momentum of the enemy, but we can do that."

The new troops have made bold advances into previously Taliban-held areas, but have also taken by far the worst casualties of the war. More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since March than in the entire period from 2001-04.

The US military said six Americans died in southern Afghanistan on the eve of the vote. A new poll in the Washington Post found 51 percent of Americans believe the war is not worth fighting, and only a quarter favour sending more troops.

The Afghan government has requested international and domestic media not report violence during polling hours, a ban that the United Nations says it has asked authorities to lift.


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