- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | Insurgents stepped up a bombing campaign Tuesday in an apparent attempt to disrupt Thursday’s elections, and the government countered by restricting local and international media reports of extremist attacks on election day.

A suicide attack on a NATO convoy killed at least eight people: seven civilians and one NATO service member near Kabul. At least 55 were wounded.

The Taliban has threatened to attack polling places Thursday when voters choose a president and members of parliament. The militants also have threatened to cut off fingers stained with ink by poll workers. The ink is intended to prevent people from casting multiple ballots.

In violence Tuesday:

- The seven Afghan civilians and one NATO service member were killed in a suicide car bomb attack, according to the Interior Ministry. The blast occurred on the road from Kabul to Bagram, site of the largest U.S. base in the country.

- The presidential palace was apparently the target of two projectile explosives that missed their mark but landed in one of the most heavily protected areas of the city. No casualties were reported.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said militants fired four rockets at Kabul in the morning, but no one took responsibility for the car bombing.

- A bus bombing in Kandahars Maiwand district, a Taliban stronghold, killed nine Afghan civilians. Another explosion in neighboring Zhari district wounded five people.

- Two U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded when their vehicle struck a bomb in the country’s east, the U.S. command said, according to the Associated Press.

Thursday’s vote is seen as a critical test of Afghanistans fragile democracy. It comes amid a U.S. troop buildup and an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency. About 300,000 international and Afghan security forces will attempt to provide security for about 7,000 polling stations.

The Foreign Ministry issued a statement requesting that all domestic and international media refrain “from broadcasting any incident of violence during the election process.”

The ministry attributed the request to the nation’s National Security Council, and said it applied from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The statement cited “the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people … and prevent any election-related terroristic violence,” according to a dispatch by Agence France-Presse.

Tuesday’s attacks came three days after a suicide car bomber struck in front of the headquarters of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, killing seven Afghans and wounding dozens in the biggest attack on the capital in six months.

Siamak Herawi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said the media-blackout decision was made “in the national interest of Afghanistan in order to encourage people and raise their morale to come out and vote.”

The head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, Rahimullah Samander, condemned the decrees, saying they underscored the weakness of the government.

Afghan and NATO forces have accelerated efforts to secure hostile areas. A major offensive in Helmand province has been under way in recent weeks, though election officials estimate that more than 100 polling stations in the province will not open on election day.

The head of Afghan intelligence, Amrullah Saleh, said on Sunday that deals have been brokered with influential Taliban commanders in the southern provinces to observe a cease-fire during the vote.

But Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar reiterated his call for voters to be punished, a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said via e-mail.

The spokesman called elections a “show” staged by the U.S. government and foreign partners for “puppet” figures that do not reflect the will of the Afghan public and are therefore illegitimate.

“We will sabotage [the election] wherever possible,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, NATO spokesman, said efforts 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.”

This story was reported using a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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