Afghanistan holds landmark legislative elections amid fears of violence
KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans went to the polls Sunday to elect a new legislature, hoping to bolster a fragile democracy after a quarter-century of war and sideline the Taliban militants who fought to undermine the vote.”Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan,” said Ali Safar, 62, who was standing in line to vote in the capital, Kabul. “We want dignity, we want stability and peace. Thirty years of war and poverty is enough.”Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote at more than 6,000 polling stations, guarded by some 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops.The Taliban called for a boycott of the elections, but said they would not attack civilians heading to the polls. A wave of assaults in the 48 hours leading up to the vote left nine militants and three policemen dead.Security forces said they thwarted four rebel bombings, including an attempt to blow up a massive dam.The vote was seen as the last formal step toward democracy on a path set out after a U.S.-led force drove the Taliban from power in 2001, when they refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.Presidential elections last October saw Hamid Karzai affirmed as the nation’s leader.Many people hoped the legislative polls would marginalize the insurgents and end a spiral of violence that started in 1979 when Soviet troops invaded, before a devastating civil war and the oppressive rule of the hard-line Taliban.Top U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said militants had failed to disrupt preparations for the polls despite violence during the six months leading up to the vote that killed 1,200 people, including seven candidates and four election workers.”We are very confident that those extremists will also fail to disrupt and derail voting day,” Arnault said.A U.S. military spokesman, Col. James Yonts, predicted “a massive number” of voters would turn out, telling The Associated Press that “this election will send a powerful message to the Taliban that their influence is waning.””This election will send a powerful message to the Taliban that their influence is waning and that the overarching grip they’ve had on this country for several years is no longer there,” he told The Associated Press.On Saturday, militants ambushed a security patrol on the outskirts of Kabul, killing a district police chief and two officers in the first attack so close to the capital in some time, Interior Ministry spokesman Luftullah Mashal said.”The Taliban and al-Qaida are trying their best to create problems,” Mashal told AP.Security forces aided by U.S.-led coalition troops captured 20 militants as they laid explosives trying to blow up the hulking Kajaki Dam in southern Helmand province, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Saher Azimi said. Thousands of people live nearby.Mashal said government forces also stopped planned car bombings in volatile Ghazni and Paktika provinces and a fourth bomb plot near the border with Pakistan, where two Pakistanis suspected of being Taliban members were caught with explosives.Guerrillas ambushed a patrol on the highway linking Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar, triggering a firefight that killed seven militants, local government chief Gulam Rasool said. He said a rebel rocket set a police car on fire, but the officers escaped.The U.S. military said it had discovered seven roadside bombs across the country.About 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops were on alert to guard the election. In Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, all vehicles were banned from driving after midday Saturday due to car bomb fears.In Pakistan, thousands of soldiers stood by near the border with Afghanistan. Militants based on the Pakistani side of the mountainous frontier are believed to cross into Afghanistan to stage attacks.Amid the violence and concerns about voters being pressured by local warlords, the chairman of the Afghan-U.N. electoral body, Bismillah Bismil, assured voters their ballots would be secret.”Do not be intimidated or frightened by the empty threats of those who attempt to influence your vote,” he said.Arnault, the U.N. envoy, hailed the election as a victory over violence.”We are seeing today an unmistakable confirmation that there is in the country the emergence of a new political culture,” he said. “A sense that the legacy of the rule of the gun can be resisted is now taking root.”—Associated Press reporters Daniel Cooney and Amir Shah in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.
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