Taliban steps up election terror campaign

Suicide attack on Nato convoy kills 10 as violence sweeps Afghanistan before poll
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The Independent Online

A Taliban suicide bomb attack on a Nato convoy killed at least 10 people, including one international soldier and two UN staff yesterday. Mortar rounds landed inside the grounds of the presidential palace as Islamists unleashed a wave of violence highlighting the volatile Afghan security situation on the eve of national elections.

The suicide truck attack on one of the main roads from Kabul leading east to Jalalabad, near a British military base, also injured 52 people, at least a dozen of them seriously. A Nato spokesman said a number of its soldiers "were killed and injured in the blast". Further details would be released after next of kin had been informed, he said.

Two Afghan civilians working for the UN were among the dead and another was wounded. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply distressed" by the news. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing and declared that further attacks would soon follow.

The attack set a row of vehicles on fire and damaged nearby buildings. British troops, guarding the site of the attack, had to collect remains of victims from the roofs of nearby buildings. Local people searched through the rubble for survivors who were ferried to hospitals in private cars.

There were no injuries in the mortar attack aimed at the residence of the President Hamid Karzai. Hamid Elmi, a presidential spokesman, said the rounds had struck "around the compound" but had no further details.

A US military spokeswoman, Elizabeth Mathias, had no details of damage or casualties from the attack on the presidential compound. Neither Mr Karzai nor anyone else was wounded in the attack, said Mr Elmi. He said the rounds probably hit "somewhere around the compound", but he had no further details.

In separate attacks, two American soldiers were killed and three others were wounded by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan. The deaths brought to 26 the number of US service members killed in the conflict in the past 30 days. Meanwhile, a suicide attack killed three Afghan soldiers and two civilians in Uruzgan in the south of the country. In Jowzjan province in the north, an election candidate was shot dead and three poll workers killed in Badakshan when the car they were travelling in hit a roadside bomb.

Mr Karzai is still favourite to win the country's second presidential election since the 2001 US-led invasion although he is facing a stiff challenge from other leading candidates.

He said Afghans would not be deterred by these "barbaric acts". He has vowed to restore peace and security but his government is clearly so rattled by the bloodshed that it has ordered a news blackout on media reporting of attacks while voting is underway tomorrow. Separate decrees from the interior ministry and the foreign ministry warned national and international news media to stay away from the scenes of attacks and to refrain from airing broadcasts about violence because they risked frightening people into staying away from the polls.

"We have taken this decision in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote," said a spokesman, Siamak Herawi.

Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and there were continuing reports of Taliban warnings to voters to stay at home tomorrow. Western governments believe a strong turnout is essential to give the outcome legitimacy but the Islamist movement has threatened to blow up polling stations to sabotage what it calls "a foreign plot against the country".

Despite the absence of any let-up in insurgent activity, Nato officially announced yesterday that its forces would stop military operations on election day and would undertake missions only if they were "deemed necessary to protect the population". However, operations were still continuing in Helmand and Kandahar yesterday by British and American troops to "disrupt Taliban attempts to disrupt the elections".

Meanwhile, the militant network run by the Taliban in neighbouring Pakistan was dealt a blow with the arrest of a spokesman, Mualvi Omar. Omar reportedly told interrogators that the movement's chief, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed on 5 August. Reports of Mehsud's death had previously been denied.