Kabul — Gunfire erupted in the heart of the Afghan capital today on the eve of national elections, a day after insurgents fired at the presidential palace and unleashed a suicide car bomber on a NATO convoy. Alarmed, the government asked news media not to report violence the day of the vote.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary told The Associated Press that three or four armed men took over a branch of the Pashtani Bank early today in the Jadi Maiwand area of the city. Police responded and surrounded the building, exchanging gunfire with the attackers. He said there had been no casualties.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said 20 armed suicide attackers wearing explosive vests have entered the city and five of them are battling police. The claim could not be confirmed.
The latest attacks were an ominous sign that the Taliban and their allies are determined to disrupt Thursday’s election, in which incumbent Hamid Karzai is up against some three dozen other presidential candidates. The Islamist insurgents have threatened those who take part in the election — a crucial step in President Barack Obama’s campaign to turn around the deteriorating war.
Eight people died, including a NATO soldier, and 55 were wounded in the two attacks Tuesday, authorities said. In eastern Afghanistan, two U.S. service members were killed and three wounded in a separate bombing, the U.S. military announced, pushing the death toll this month for the American force to 26.
U.S. officials believe a strong turnout is essential if the new Afghan president is to gain the legitimacy to tackle the formidable challenges facing this nation, including the insurgency, political divisions, ethnic tension, unemployment and corruption.
In a bid to promote a big voter turnout, the NATO-led military force announced that the more than 100,000 international troops here will refrain from offensive operations on election day, focusing instead on protecting voters.
“Our efforts alongside our Afghan security partners will focus on protecting the people of Afghanistan from the insurgents so that the population can freely exercise their right to choose their next president and their provincial representatives,” NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said.
Fearing that violence may dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday asking news organizations to avoid “broadcasting any incidence of violence” between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on election day “to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people.” The statement did not spell out any penalties for those that 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 “terrorist attack” was “strictly forbidden.”
It was unclear how the government intended to enforce the ban. Rachel Reid, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, said freedom of expression was enshrined in the Afghan constitution and that any attempt to censor the reporting would be “an unreasonable violation of press freedoms.”
“Afghans have a right to know about the security threats that they face, and make their own assessments about security,” Reid said.
Despite heightened security in Kabul and other major cities, a series of attacks in the capital, starting with a suicide bombing Saturday that killed seven people near the main gate of NATO headquarters, has raised doubts that Afghan authorities can guarantee security on election day.