KABUL, Aug 20: Taliban attacks and blasts killed 26 civilians and security personnel as millions of Afghans voted to choose a president on Thursday in polls that were declared a security success with less violence than expected.
“The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote,” President Hamid Karzai told a news conference after polls closed. “We’ll see what the turnout was. But they came out to vote. That’s great, that’s great.”
Preliminary results are not due for two weeks, although polling stations could begin to report sooner. Rockets fell on towns and two gunmen wearing suicide vests were killed in a gunbattle in Kabul, but the Taliban failed to mount a single spectacular strike that could threaten the poll itself.
“Overall, the security situation has been better than we feared. That is certainly the most positive aspect of these elections,” said Kai Eide, head of the UN mission in Kabul. Pre-election polls showed Mr Karzai is likely to win but not by enough votes to avoid a run-off against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
US President Barack Obama’s envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in Kabul. “So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong,” he said.
Election commission head Azizullah Ludin said 6,192 polling stations had opened, 94 per cent of the number planned. Polls were kept open an extra hour because some stations had temporarily shut for security reasons during the day.
National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh said authorities thwarted plans by fighters to attack a hotel in Kabul and a ministry.
UN officials described turnout as robust in the north but weaker in the south, although they saw signs that turnout there picked up during the day as violence eased.
‘135 incidents of violence’
A series of attacks killed nine civilians, nine policemen and eight soldiers, ministers told a news conference in what Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said was a total of 135 incidents. Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen hailed the election a “success” in security terms and said it had been well run.
Police said militants stormed an Afghan town on Thursday, launching a multi-pronged assault that sparked clashes and disrupted voting. “Terrorists attacked from several directions. Fighting has been going on since morning,” provincial police chief Mohammad Kabir Andarabi told AFP from Baghlan, a small town in the usually peaceful north. “The enemy has been pushed back. We have killed 22 terrorists,” he added.
Provincial governor Mohammad Akbar Barakzai later said 30 ‘rebels’ were killed in fighting. The head of the country’s Independent Election Commission told a news conference in Kabul that voting had been disrupted in the town. “We had to tell our people to save your (ballot) boxes and save yourselves,” Mr Lodin told reporters.
Separately, in a volatile district in the western province of Herat, the Taliban stormed into three polling stations, set fire to the buildings and destroyed all votes cast, a district governor said.
In the northern Kunduz province, Taliban were repelled from attacking a polling station, police said. In eastern Gardez city, two would-be suicide bombers were shot dead, defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said. And in Kandahar, at least four explosions rang out before polling stations opened and a woman was killed when a rocket slammed into a residential neighbourhood, a witness said.