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Afghans told not to fear Taliban threat on election day

Video by Kathryn STAPLEY

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-09-16

The Afghan government is attempting to reassure the public after insurgent groups renewed threats to use violence during a parliamentary poll on Saturday, which they consider “an illegitimate American process”.

AP - Afghan officials sought to reassure wary citizens on Thursday that it will be safe to vote in this weekend’s parliamentary elections despite an upswing in violence in recent months.

Both the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, an insurgent group under the leadership of warlord and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have criticized the elections and urged people to stay home.
 
On Thursday, election officials announced they will close about 300 additional voting centers because of security concerns, dropping the number of polling stations to 5,516.
 
But in the southern province of Kandahar  - the birthplace of the Taliban  - Gov. Tooryalai Wesa insisted that recent military operations by NATO and Afghan forces had weakened the insurgents.
 
“They’ve got nothing,” Wesa told reporters in Kandahar city. “They just have propaganda and threats, so people should not be afraid. They should come out for the coming elections and they should vote their choice for their own candidate.”
 
Saturday’s poll is the first since a fraud-marred presidential vote last year that left many of the Afghan government’s international backers questioning whether they had a reliable partner in President Hamid Karzai.
 
Much of the fraud in the August 2009 election was tied to insecurity. Polling station lists were only released a few days before the vote because of continually changing reports from security forces about what areas they could secure. A push to open as many polling stations as possible enabled corrupt officials to stuff ballot boxes for their preferred candidate at stations voters didn’t know about or couldn’t get to.
 
Adding to tensions in Afghanistan have been a series of protests in recent days against reported burnings of Qurans in the United States. On Thursday, about 100 rock-throwing protesters moved toward a NATO military base in Chora district of Uruzgan in southwest Afghanistan. The provincial governor, Khudi Rahim, said one person was killed.
 
The coalition said a protester pointed an AK-47 at a guard tower at Forward Operating Base Mirwais and was shot by a NATO service member. Protesters pulled the man away before coalition members were able to determine his condition. According to the coalition, the protest was reportedly held in response to an alleged Quran burning inside the base on Wednesday that NATO said was a routine burning of coalition papers.
 
The government on Thursday sought to reassure Afghans that it will still be safe to vote on Saturday.
 
“The Interior Ministry calls on the people of Afghanistan to come out and vote in force. The security is fine. We have taken care of the security,” Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary told reporters in Kabul.
 
NATO said Thursday that eight insurgents who “actively” planned to execute attacks during the elections were killed in an airstrike and a follow-up ground operation against a Taliban district commander in northern Kunduz province the previous day.
 
In addition, NATO and Afghan forces arrested three men who had been planning a rocket and grenade attack on a military training center in the capital during the balloting, NATO said Thursday.
 
Nevertheless, the campaign season has been characterized by violence and intimidation.
 
On Wednesday, two campaign workers were gunned down in northern Balkh province, according to Deputy Police Chief Abdul Raouf Taj. He did not have details and said police were investigating the incident.
 
The killings add to at least 19 election-related deaths already recorded in the run-up to the vote, including four candidates, according to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the main Afghan monitoring group.
 
The number of polling stations has been steadily cut since they were announced a month ago, with security forces saying they overestimated the number of sites they could secure.
 
The Taliban repeated their threat of violence on election day in a statement sent to media Thursday.
 
It said it has planned countrywide attacks “to frustrate this American process and will implement them on the day when the illegitimate process (of elections) is conducted.”
 
In the eastern province of Khost, Taliban leaflets were posted on mosques warning against voting.
 
“Any election workers or voters will be considered abandoned by our holy warriors and if they go to polling stations they will be targeted,” one leaflet said. “Vehicles and polling stations will be attacked by bombs and other means.”
 
The reactions in Khost reflected a mixture of fear and tenacity among citizens.
 
“I am not crazy to risk my life by participating in the elections,” said one resident, Mohammad Shapoor.
 
But another man said he would not be deterred. “We will vote fearlessly, we are not scared of anyone,” Sharifuddin Zazai said.
 
In a reminder of the ongoing violence, NATO said two of its service members were killed in attacks in the south Thursday. The military coalition did not provide details.
 
About 280,000 Afghan police and soldiers will protect the voting centers on election day, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. Last year, about 150,000 Afghan forces protected more than 6,000 voting centers. He said the number of international forces providing backup has also increased since the 2009 vote.
 
A leader of the ethnic Hazara minority accused the government on Thursday of refusing to open polling centers in Hazara-dominated areas to swing the vote toward other candidates.
 
“There is no concern of insecurity in these areas,” said Mohammed Mohaqeq.
 
The chief of the election commission, Fazel Ahmad Mahnawi, told reporters that they are getting continued pressure to open more polling stations to avoid disenfranchising voters, but that this was not possible without opening the door to fraud.
 
In Kandahar, local officials warned that too much security could hamper turnout. The province, and particularly Kandahar city, have seen a surge of international and Afghan forces in recent months as part of a push against the Taliban.
 
Ahmad Wali Karzai, chairman of the provincial council and President Karzai’s brother, said people can be frightened away if normal traffic is restricted or there are too many security forces on the street.
 
“It’s better for people and the government to relax and make it more like a normal, routine day,” he said.
 
Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in last year’s presidential poll, called on Afghans to vote “in massive numbers” Saturday, even though he said the vote will likely be marred with fraud and violence.
 
“The answer is not to show apathy,” he said.

 

Date created : 2010-09-16

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