Thu, Aug 20, 2009 - Page 1 News List

Gunmen attack in Kabul on election eve

MEDIA PROTESTS Afghan journalists yesterday rejected the government’s demand they observe a blackout on coverage of violence during today’s presidential election


Gunmen stormed a bank building in the Afghan capital and battled police for hours yesterday on the eve of a cliffhanger election that Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt.

The brazen early morning raid was the third major attack in Kabul in five days, shattering the calm in a city that had been relatively secure for months but is now tense and dotted with police checkpoints.

Polls show Afghan President Hamid Karzai leading but likely to fall short of the outright majority needed to avoid an October run-off, most likely against his main challenger, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Violence could raise the chance of a run-off by suppressing turnout in southern areas where Karzai draws his support — or even jeopardize the legitimacy of the poll altogether. Analysts say a run-off in turn increases the chances of more violence.

In southern Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban, two election workers were killed in a bomb blast, an election official said.

Fearing more election-related violence, officials in Kandahar city said they would close roads to normal traffic for today’s poll, allowing only election workers and observers, vehicles transporting voters, and the media to travel freely.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said five gunmen, some wearing suicide bomb vests, carried out the Kabul raid.

Police said three fighters were involved. Security forces took reporters into a nearby compound and showed them the bullet-riddled bodies of three fighters killed in the clash.

A police source initially said three members of the security forces were also killed, but the Interior Ministry later said in a statement there were no government casualties.

In a statement on a Taliban Web site, the group said 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital, preparing attacks to thwart the election. Another statement said the militants were closing roads countrywide.

Many Afghans insist they will vote in spite of the threats.

“Why should I be afraid? This is Kabul; in Kabul there is security,” said Noor Agha, 30, near the scene of yesterday’s siege. “I will vote tomorrow; I’m not afraid. Police and intelligence services are in the area, so I’m not afraid.”

The Afghan government has ordered foreign and domestic media to impose a blackout on coverage of violence during today’s polls, saying it did not want Afghans to be frightened away. However, Afghan journalists rejected the demand, saying it violated their constitutional right to cover the news.

“We will not obey this order. We are going to continue with our normal reporting and broadcasting of news,” said Rahimullah Samander, head of the Independent Journalist Association of Afghanistan.

Samander said a presidential spokesman called him Tuesday night to tell him to inform members of the association not to report violence on election day. He refused.

When there are rumors of violence, “the first thing they do is turn on their radios or TVs, or go on the Internet to read news,” he said. “If the people aren’t able to find information, it will be very difficult for them to participate in the election. If there is, for example, an attack on a highway going to a polling station, the people should know about it. It may be dangerous for them to use that highway.”

Fahim Dashti, the editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly, called the demand “a violation of media law” and a constitution that protects freedom of speech.

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