As Afghanistan prepares to vote, the Taliban's 'night letters' and bullets spread message of fear

Abdul Razzik learned of the Taliban's intention to kill him at the end of this week when he read the letter pinned to his village mosque. The Shubnama - night letter - wasn't the usual half-literate scrawl but composed and printed out by computer, with Mr Razzik's name highlighted in red.

Normally, the grandfather, who works for an American-owned agricultural company, would shrug off such threats. In Helmand Province, though, these are not normal times.

In the past few days, Taliban killing squads have fanned out across the province looking for soft targets. If they kill enough people between now and Saturday, the voters may be too scared to vote in the presidential election. Because the US military is too difficult to attack, anyone working for foreigners, or the Kabul government, or in reconstruction, is a target.

Foreigners are the biggest prize - Taliban commanders are said to have put a $50,000 (£30,000) bounty on their heads.

In the past week, small groups of guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have been seen moving on motorbikes and pickup trucks across this region near Kandahar. Many are teenagers brainwashed on fundamentalism who have crossed from refuges in Pakistan or neighbouring Uruzgan Province, a Taliban stronghold and home of Mullah Omar, their leader. They are on a spree and it is expected to prove bloody.

Mr Razzik, 57, believes few people still support the Taliban in Helmand, an opium poppy-growing region in southern Afghanistan's Pushtun belt, so the guerrillas must rely on fear to sabotage Saturday's vote.

Not even Afghan President Hamid Karzai's vice-presidential running mate is safe after he was targeted yesterday by an ambush in the north-east that killed at least one man and injured five others.

The vice-presidential hopeful, Ahmed Zia Massood, escaped unharmed and was flown back to Kabul after his convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb or land mine set off by remote control as it passed along a road in Faizabad, the provincial capital.

Rumours of attacks are seized on in the bazaars of north Helmand and politics is hardly discussed at all. Many voters are worried about the ink that will stain their hands, used to prevent multiple voting, fearing it will betray them to wrathful Taliban.

The violence has already started. A few miles from the town of Kajaki two government soldiers were gunned down in a night attack and, earlier in the day, a guard working for a Western construction firm was ambushed on his motorbike on the road south of the town. He bled to death before a helicopter could arrive from Kabul.

The killer was his cousin, a Taliban who had arrived from Peshawar in Pakistan. He took revenge after the guard refused to plant a bomb on the site.

"Things will be very bad in the next few days," said Engineer Akbar, another educated Afghan who works with foreigners. He has told his five sons to stay away from school for the next week.

"The tall corn is very dangerous," he said. "It is easy to escape into after you attack somebody." The Taliban is believed to have spies everywhere, and fighters are probably helped by local mafias, who don't want to see effective government.

"Fundamentalists are very dangerous," said Mr Razzik, a tall, bearded Pushtun, who pulled the folded night letter from his waistcoat jacket.

It warned him that he would be executed for co-operating with infidels and instructed him to prepare to answer to Allah.

He admits he is scared. What worries him most was that the letter's author had been captured with his computer and printer, but later released by a government official whose loyalties are said to be with the old regime.

"The police do not protect us from the Taliban," he said.

He added: "I and my brothers must be ready with our guns when they come."

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