Two Taliban insurgents were killed in a gun battle in the Afghan capital on Thursday as millions voted in the presidential election marked by sporadic violence across the country.
The Kabul attack, coming after the Taliban said 20 of their fighters had infiltrated the capital, was the worst of several on polling stations and voters, mainly in the south and east.
Inspite of the violence, the UN said there were encouraging signs of high turnout.
“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.
“We are seeing queues forming at polling stations in the north and the
capital, as well as in the east,” Siddique added.
President Hamid Karzai cast his ballot under tight security at a high school in Kabul, telling reporters he hoped for an outright majority in a single round.
He faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, and polls suggest he may not get enough votes to avoid a second round run-off, likely in October.
Preliminary results are not expected for at least two weeks.
The election is also a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered
a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.
Obama’s envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in Kabul, and said what he’d seen was “open and honest”, adding:“so far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong.”
As he spoke, two Taliban fighters were engaged in a shootout with Afghan forces in the capital.
Abdullah Uruzgani, a police battalion commander, told Reuters the two were later killed, while unconfirmed reports said one had blown himself up with a bomb-laden suicide vest and the other had been shot dead.
Attacks have increased in the weeks leading to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and building a siege inside the normally
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 election even without big attacks if their threats keep people from the
But many Afghans said attacks would not keep them from voting.
“The Afghan people are used to living under the worst circumstances of insecurity and fighting, why should they be afraid to come out and vote?” said Sayed Mustafa, a Kabul student, showing off his ink-stained finger that proved he had voted.
In northern Baghlan province, Taliban guerrillas attacked a police post, killing a district police chief.
Rockets hit the cities of Kandahar, Laskar Gah, Ghazni and Kunduz, where two election observers were wounded at a polling station.
In the city of Gardez, a police official said two suicide bombers on motorcycles blew themselves up but failed to hit their target and caused no casualties.
“A bomb went off in the provincial police headquarters in northern Takhar province causing damage but no casualties,” provincial police chief Ziauddin Mahmoudi said.
More than 30,000 U.S. 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.
U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. 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 on the enemy, but we can do that.”
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 to report violence during polling hours, a ban that the UN says it has asked.