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Standoff as Taliban attack Afghan election headquarters

AFP

KABUL: Taliban insurgents unleashed rockets and gunfire on the Afghan election commission’s heavily-fortified headquarters in Kabul on Saturday, one week ahead of voting and after a series of bloody assaults in the city.
At least three attackers raided an unoccupied nearby building and targeted the election offices in a stand-off that continued for more than four hours as elite Afghan commandos tried to hunt them down. “Police have surrounded the building, but the fighting isn’t over yet,” Kabul police spokesman Hashmat Stanikzai told AFP, adding there were no details on casualties.
Independent Election Commission (IEC) spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said that staff were hiding in reinforced safe-rooms, but all employees were unharmed. 
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack via a recognised Twitter account.
Kabul airport, which is in the same eastern area of city, was closed for some hours, with planes diverted to Karachi and returning to Delhi as well as other destinations.
On Tuesday, Taliban suicide attackers stormed a separate IEC office in the Afghan capital, killing five people.
As tensions rise, some restaurants and shops popular with foreigners have shut for the election period due to the risk of attack.
The militant group has vowed to disrupt the vote on April 5, urging their fighters to attack polling staff, voters and security forces in the run-up to polling day.
“I heard several explosions, and I saw insurgents armed with heavy and light weapons taking up positions in a private building, and they started firing on the IEC compound,” one local driver who declined to give his name told AFP. Interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said three or four attackers were involved in the attack on the office, where a press conference had been scheduled to announce details on security preparations for the election.
The vote to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, barred constitutionally from seeking a third term, will be Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic handover of power.
But a repeat of the bloodshed that marred the 2004 and 2009 elections would damage claims by international donors that the expensive 13-year US-led intervention has made progress in establishing a functioning Afghan state.
Saturday’s assault came the day after Taliban attackers raided a Kabul guesthouse used by a US anti-landmine charity, killing two people.
The guesthouse attack was the fourth this year in Kabul targeting foreigners or places where foreigners congregate.
Last Thursday four Taliban gunmen smuggled pistols into Kabul’s high-security Serena hotel and shot dead nine people including four foreigners.
The victims also included Agence France-Presse journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife and two of their three children.
Those attacks followed the daylight shooting of a Swedish radio journalist and an assault in January on a Lebanese restaurant that killed 21 people including 13 foreigners.
Presidential candidates have been holding election rallies across the country before the last day of campaigning on Wednesday.
Former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in 2009, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul are the leading contenders in the eight-man race. On Saturday, a telephone poll of 3,200 voters in all 34 provinces put Ghani on 27 percent, Abdullah on 25 percent and Rassoul on 8 percent. ATR, the Kabul-based research group which took the poll, said that about 30 percent of voters remained undecided.

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