Kabul: Gunmen stormed a bank building in the Afghan capital and battled police for hours on Wednesday on the eve of a cliffhanger election which Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt.
The brazen early morning raid was the third major attack in Kabul in five days, shattering the calm in a city which had been secure for months but is now tense and dotted with police checkpoints.
Polls show President Hamid Karzai leading but likely to fall short of the outright majority needed to avoid an October run-off, most likely against his main challenger, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Violence could raise the chance of a run-off by suppressing turnout in southern areas where Karzai draws his support -- or even jeopardize the legitimacy of the poll altogether. Analysts say a run-off in turn increases the chances of more violence.
In southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban, two election workers were killed in a bomb blast, an election official said.
Fearing more election-related violence, officials in Kandahar city said they would close roads to normal traffic for Thursday`s poll, allowing only election workers and observers, vehicles transporting voters, and the media to travel freely.
Suicide BOMB VESTS
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said five gunmen, some wearing suicide bomb vests, carried out the Kabul raid.
Police said three fighters were involved. Security forces took reporters into a nearby compound and showed them the bullet-riddled bodies of three fighters killed in the clash.
A police source initially said three members of the security forces were also killed, but the Interior Ministry later said in a statement there were no government casualties.
In a statement on a Taliban website (www.alemara.org) the Islamist group said 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital, preparing attacks to thwart the election. Another statement said the militants were closing roads countrywide.
"From today onwards until the end of tomorrow, all main and secondary roads will be blocked for traffic and the mujahideen will bear no responsibility for whoever gets hurt," it said.
The Afghan government has ordered foreign and domestic media to impose a blackout on coverage of violence during Thursday`s polls, saying it did not want Afghans to be frightened away.
Police beat journalists and bystanders with rifle butts to keep them away from the scene of Wednesday`s raid. A cameraman and a reporter for Tolo TV, an independent Afghan station, were detained at the scene but later released, the station said.
Police said the attackers might have been bank robbers, but the Interior Ministry statement referred to them as "terrorists."
The raid follows a recent pattern the Taliban have used in eastern and southern towns -- using fighters to seize buildings.
It also came a day after a suicide car bomber killed eight people in the capital, the second such strike in four days. Such attacks had been common in the south but had not taken place in comparatively secure Kabul for months.
Streets in the capital were largely deserted on Wednesday, with businesses shut for Afghanistan`s Independence Day holiday.
Many Afghans insist they will vote in spite of the threats.
"Why should I be afraid? This is Kabul; in Kabul there is security," said Noor Agha, 30, near the scene of Wednesday`s siege. "I will vote tomorrow; I`m not afraid. Police and intelligence services are in the area, so I`m not afraid."
In the runup to the poll, Karzai has won endorsements from a number of the former militia chieftains whose armed factions once held sway, raising alarm among Western donors that warlords could return to carve up power in a new Karzai administration.
Abdullah has run a surprisingly strong campaign, with well-attended rallies across the country, and has been polling about 25 percent to about 45 percent for Karzai.
Nevertheless, Abdullah still draws most of his support from the north and would face an uphill struggle to win the presidency even if he forces a second round.
The election is a test for US President Barack Obama`s tactic of sending thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan to reverse Taliban advances. More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops arrived this year, raising the total foreign force above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.
"I think one way you can view the violence is an effort by the Taliban to intimidate people from actually voting," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on Tuesday.
"And, you know, there are problems with this election, as there are with any election, but we still believe that it is the right of the people of Afghanistan to pick their own leaders."