Afghan forces on alert as Taliban warns people against voting

August 19th, 2009 - 8:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban Kabul, Aug 19 (DPA) Afghan security forces Wednesday boosted their presence on Kabul’s streets with less than 24 hours to go before the start of presidential and provincial elections while the Taliban issued a new threat, warning voters to stay off the country’s roads and highways.
The militant group announced a boycott of Thursday’s elections two weeks ago and said it would block all of Afghanistan’s roads in a bid to prevent voters from getting to polling stations.

“All Afghan people are hereby informed that all highways and roads of the country are closed to traffic from Wednesday morning till the end of tomorrow,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday.

“In case of a violation, if anyone is harmed by the mujahedin (holy warriors), they will be responsible for it themselves,” Mujahid said.

However, General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the defence ministry, rejected the Taliban’s road closure claim while saying around 300,000 Afghan and international forces were on high alert before the polls.

“We have control of all roads and highways, and we are protecting them both by ground and air forces,” Azimi said by phone from a joint Afghan and NATO Central Command office, which is overseeing security for the elections.

While the Taliban was warning of more attacks on election day, Afghan security authorities and NATO have announced that they would halt their offensive operations Thursday and instead focus on protecting voters.

“While we will obey the order for halting our military assaults, our armed forces will severely respond to any attack that is mounted by the enemies,” Azimi said.

The Taliban’s warning came after a series of brazen attacks by militants in the immediate run-up to the election, in which President Hamid Karzai, the frontrunner, is vying against about 30 other candidates for re-election.

A gunbattle with Afghan forces erupted after Taliban fighters occupied a bank in central Kabul Wednesday morning, a day after the militants fired rockets into the presidential palace and unleashed a suicide bombing on a NATO convoy in the eastern part of the capital, killing 10 people.

The Independent Election Commission said at a press conference that all preparations were in place for around 17 million registered voters to elect a president and 420 provincial council members for the country’s 34 provinces.

More than 270,000 election observers, including 2,000 foreign observers, are overseeing the balloting at more than 6,500 polling centres while the commission said it was unable to open voting stations in nine districts that remain outside government control.

While Taliban-led violence was expected to shadow the polls and dampen turnout, people on Kabul’s streets expressed mixed feelings about the threats.

“If we want to change this government, we should come out of our homes and vote,” Ahmad Bari, a 32-year-old businessman, said. “That is what I am going to do.”

But street vendor Mohammad Nasim, 26, said it was not worth risking his life to vote.

“Every day there is an attack, and there will be even more tomorrow, so I will take a day off and sleep and will not let any of my family members vote either,” he said.

Fearing a low turnout, the Afghan government requested all national and international media organisations not to report violence on election day, but schoolteacher Farid Ahmad said he was counting on such news.

“I will wait and see if there is an attack in the city,” Ahmad, 32, said. “If things are calm, then I will go to the nearest polling station and vote.

“As an Afghan, I know it is my responsibility to vote, but it is also my responsibility to stay alive and feed my family.”

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