Violence increases as Afghans prepare to vote

Gunfire and explosions reverberated through Kabul today on the eve of the presidential election after three gunmen forced a shoot-out in a bank.

The men all died when police stormed the building.

The attack came a day after more than 20 people were killed in attacks across the country, including a suicide blast in Kabul as the Taliban attempted to carry out their threat to disrupt the election.

In a sign of how difficult preparations have been, Afghanistan's chief electoral officer said that 20 per cent of ballot papers and boxes had not yet been delivered to voting sites less than 24 hours before polls open at 7am tomorrow. Daoud Ali Najafi said Afghan army helicopters would be used to deliver them to insecure and difficult-to-reach regions.

The Interior Ministry has said that about a third of Afghanistan is at high risk of militant attack. No polling stations will open in eight Afghan districts under control of militants. Preliminary results of the presidential election should be announced sometime on Saturday evening, he said.

In today's attack the three armed men took over a branch of the Pashtani bank in a section of Kabul's old city still in ruins from the country's 1990s civil war.

Police surrounded the building, exchanging gunfire with the attackers. The sound of scattered gunfire and small explosions reverberated through the city for several hours.

Police eventually stormed the building and killed the men.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the rise in insurgent violence in Afghanistan reflected a deliberate campaign to intimidate voters.

Attacks nationwide have increased in recent days from a daily average of about 32 to 48, said a spokesman for the Nato-led force. Even with the increase, he said that insurgents do not have the ability to widely disrupt voting at the country's 6,500 or so polling sites.

"When you're looking purely at statistics ... they're not going to be able to attack even 1 percent of the entire polling sites in this country," he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon encouraged all Afghans to vote and said that by participating in the election they will help "bring fresh vigour to the country's political life, and ultimately reaffirm their commitment to contribute to the peace and prosperity of their nation."

The next president will face challenges on several fronts: the rising Taliban insurgency, internal political divisions, ethnic tensions, unemployment, the country's drug trade and corruption.

Current president Hamid Karzai is favourite, but if he does not get more than half the vote he and the second-place finisher will face off in an October run-off.

Fearing that violence may dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry asking news organisations to avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" on election day "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people." The statement did not spell out any penalties for those who do not comply.

The English version said media "are requested" to follow the guidelines. The version in the Afghan language Dari said broadcasting news or video from a "terrorist attack" was "strictly forbidden."