Taliban strike as Afghans go to the polls

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Taliban militants determined to scuttle Afghanistan's parliamentary elections showered rockets on cities today men and women voted in a key test of the government's ability to fight insurgents and entrenched corruption.

At least two civilians were killed and the governor of Kandahar province survived a bombing in the first nationwide balloting since fraud-marred presidential elections last year undermined international support for President Hamid Karzai.

The balloting measured the capacity of the government - with the help of 140,000 Nato troops - to ensure safe elections and tested the strength of militants who vowed to disrupt them. Observers expected the vote to be far from perfect, but hoped it would accepted by the Afghan people as legitimate.

About 2,500 candidates were vying for 249 seats in the parliament.

The militants struck with rockets throughout the country - the first one slamming into the capital before dawn, followed by strikes in major eastern and southern cities. A rocket in northern Baghlan province killed two civilians, police spokesman Kamen Khan said. The insurgents also launched scattered attacks on polling stations.

Afghan security officials dismissed the attacks as "insignificant," and said they did not hamper voting, adding that 92% of polling stations were open.

"There are no reports of major incidents," said Afghan Election Commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi.

However, there were some reports of voting irregularities and turnout nationwide appeared spotty at best, though the level of violence seemed lower than during last year's presidential poll, when more than 30 civilians and more than a dozen Afghan security forces were killed.

Electoral officials said they have no separate process for determining turnout ahead of the counting of the ballots. The first partial tallies are expected early next week. Full preliminary results are not expected until the end of the month and final results in late October.

In the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south, voters ventured out in small groups despite rocket strikes and bomb blasts. One bomb targeted the convoy of Gov Tooryalai Wesa as it drove between voting centres but no one was injured, police officer Abdul Manan said.

Wesa still urged Kandaharis to come out and vote.

"The situation is under control," he said. "There's nothing to be afraid of. The enemy wants the election to fail, so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you'll have to come out and vote."

Voters even lined up in the Zhari district, west of Kandahar city, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar's radical Islamic movement was born 16 years ago. Hundreds of Afghan and international troops secured the area.

"People are fed up with the Taliban, that's why they're coming out more and more, so they can get rid of the Taliban," businessman Saleh Naeem said.

The Taliban had warned they would target anyone voting or working at the polls.

In Nangarhar's troubled Surkh Rud district, the Taliban prevented two voting centres from opening until late morning, when Nato and Afghan forces routed the insurgents.

In the north, insurgents on motorbikes attacked a polling centre in the Sayyad district of Sar-e-Pul province, scaring off 10 Afghan police trainees, breaking windows and ballot boxes and making off with some election materials, provincial police chief Gen. Bulal Neram said. Election workers at the station managed to escape.

Youqob Khan, deputy police chief in Khost, said at least one person was wounded when a bomb planted under a pile of wood exploded in a school yard next to a polling centre in the provincial capital.

In eastern Ghazni province, a series of rockets fired into the provincial capital and surrounding areas scared many voters into staying home.

However, gubernatorial spokesman Sayed Ismail Jahangir said people began arriving at polling centres in late morning.

In Jalalabad, some people at busy polling stations said candidates had provided buses to take them to the polls.

Karzai cast his vote at a high school in the capital. He said he hoped voters would not be deterred by the attacks. The elections will "take the country many steps forward to a better future". Karzai said.

Last year's presidential election was similarly seen as a chance for the government to move forward to a more democratic future, then complaints of ballot-box stuffing - much of it for Karzai's benefit - and misconduct mounted.

Though Karzai still emerged the victor, the drawn-out process and his reluctance to acknowledge corruption led many of his international backers to question their commitment to Afghanistan. The international community has spent billions trying to shore up the Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency.