The precarious political future of Afghanistan was violently exposed again as explosions and gunfire were heard inside the Afghan election commission compound.
The latest in a series of attacks ahead of this week’s presidential elections saw militant insurgents disguised as women wearing burqas enter a building close to the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kabul and open fire on the building using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Taliban, which has repeatedly threatened to disrupt the upcoming elections, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Police initially said that four suicide bombers were killed after a four-hour stand-off, including a series of gun battles.
The Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammed Ayub Salangi, later upped the death toll to five militants, adding that two policeman were injured in the firefights. No other casualties were reported.
Dozens of people were said to have taken refuge in the basement of the main area of the compound where the IEC is based. The militants were unable to breach the heavily fortified area, but two warehouses were hit and set on fire.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) also reported that its nearby base was hit by small arms fire. Afghan security forces were said to be in control of the compound by last night.
Kabul International Airport, which is also close to the compound, was closed for a number of hours yesterday over security fears.
The owner of the building infiltrated by insurgents, Haji Mohibullah, told Reuters that the property had been under guard and the attackers may have evaded security. “I had three guards, two outside and one inside, but I don’t know what is happening right now. The attackers were wearing women’s burqas,” he said.
The attack was the second such incident in a matter of days in the city. On Tuesday, the Taliban struck another IEC regional office. In that assault, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle outside while two gunmen stormed the building, killing four people and trapping dozens inside.
The incidents, alongside the increasing number of attacks and bombings in recent months, have raised fears that violence will undermine the credibility of the elections next Saturday, which are being held to replace the outgoing President Hamid Karzi, in what would be the first democratic transition of power.
The Taliban now appears to be targeting civilian installations, which are less heavily fortified than political targets. Saturday’s attack came less than 24 hours after militants had stormed a guesthouse in the city used by a US-based aid group called Roots of Peace.
A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives in front of the four-storey building, then four gunmen rushed into the compound. All four were killed in an ensuing firefight, as well as a 10-year-old Afghan girl who was caught in the crossfire.
Last week, 18 policemen were killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan. Nine other people were killed, including four foreign nationals, in a separate attack on an upmarket hotel in Kabul, which reportedly caused two international agencies to pull their election observers out of the country.
Abdul Satar Saadat, the chairman of the Electoral Complaints Commission, said election officials were worried by militant attacks. On Saturay he urged the government to step up security. However, both the UN and EU election observer missions in Afghanistan said that they would continue their operations in order to allow the Afghan people to make their voices heard.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, Thijs Berman, the head of the EU election assessment team in Kabul, said that violence would put the future of the country in danger but that the “high risk of violence” was not unexpected when the mission began.
“Anyone who tries to interfere by violence during this process is putting the peace and stability of Afghanistan in danger,” he said. “The future stability of this country depends on an outcome in these elections that can be seen as credible and acceptable. Violence and intimidation may deter some people, but I hear from many of them that, regardless of the threat or potential threat, they want to cast their ballots.
“They are sensitive to the violence, but they are used to hiding their feelings on it.”
He added: “I just hope the Afghan authorities will be able to protect the thousands of Afghans who courageously organised these elections.”
UNAMA condemned the attack, stating that electoral institutions should not be targets.