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Outlook worsens in Afghanistan

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  • PARIS, August 1, 2009 (Reuters) - A French soldier has been killed and two others wounded after clashes with insurgents in Afghanistan, the French president's office said on Saturday. The latest death means 29 French soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, when U.S.-led coalition forces first entered the country. The death took place in a valley to the northeast of the capital of Kabul, the Elysee office said in a statement. Last month was the worst for foreign troops engaged in Afghanistan, where presidential elections are due to be held this month. Casualties spiked after thousands of U.S. and British troops launched operations in the southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the centre of Afghanistan's opium production.


    • KABUL, August 1, 2009 (AP) — Three U.S. troops and a French soldier have been killed today in Afghanistan. Officials say the Americans died when roadside bombs ripped through their patrol in Kandahar province. The French soldier died in a gunbattle north of the capital, Kabul.


      • August 2, 2009 (Bloomberg) -- An ambush in eastern Afghanistan killed three U.S. soldiers, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition force said in an e-mailed statement. A patrol of the International Security Assistance Force was first struck by an explosion and then the militants attacked with small arms fire, resulting in the death of three soldiers, according to the statement. “A U.S. spokesperson confirmed that the ISAF service members killed were from the United States,” the statement said.

        Some 29,000 U.S. troops form the core of the 51,000- strong NATO contingent in Afghanistan. Another 18,000 Americans serve under a separate U.S. counterterrorism command. President Barack Obama’s pledge to add troops more will bring the total number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to 68,000. Three U.S. soldiers were killed by two separate roadside bombs in Afghanistan yesterday, Christine Sidenstricker, a military spokeswoman in Kabul said. On the same day another French soldier died in a gun battle with the militants, according to a statement released by the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy.


        • August 3, 2009 -- A remote-controlled bomb exploded today in western Afghanistan's main city, killing at least 10 people and critically wounding a district police chief, the target of the attack. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the bomb, which went off on a crowded street near a fruit market in Herat. It injured 30 people, said Raouf Ahmedi, a police spokesman. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said the group had targeted Mohammad Issa, the police chief for nearby Injil district, who was driving into the city. The police spokesman said he had been taken to a NATO-run hospital in critical condition.

          Local police officials initially reported a dozen dead, but the head of the regional health department, Dr Ghulam Said Rashid, confirmed 10 were killed: a woman, a girl, six men and two police officers. Ahmedi said the blast blew out windows over a 100-metre radius and several casualties were fruit stallholders. Witnesses said the bomb left a metre-wide crater in the street and damaged two police vehicles.

          The interior ministry, meanwhile, said insurgents attacked a police checkpoint in the old city of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan yesterday. Eight militants and two police died in the ensuing gunbattle, the ministry said. The violence in the comparatively calm cities of Herat and Baghlan highlighted the volatile situation across Afghanistan as it braces for presidential and local elections this month. President Hamid Karzai, who is seen as the frontrunner, condemned the bombing. "This is another attempt by the terrorists to disrupt democracy and development in Afghanistan," he said in a statement.

          Around 100,000 NATO troops have been deployed in Afghanistan, including a record 62,000 U.S. troops, more than double the number a year ago but still half their strength in Iraq. Nine troops have been killed in fighting or bombings this month in Afghanistan, including three Americans on Sunday and three on Saturday, along with two Canadians and one French soldier. July was the deadliest month for international troops since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban government, with 74 foreign troops killed.

          Roadside bombs have become the militants' weapon of choice, with the number of such attacks rising sharply this year. U.S. troops claim the militants are now using bombs with little or no metal, making them even harder to detect. The Taliban is planting bombs on top of one another and burying several bombs in one small area. U.S. commanders have long predicted a rise in violence in Afghanistan this summer, the country's traditional fighting season, with Taliban militants vowing to disrupt the presidential vote on 20 August.


          • August 4, 2009 -- A British soldier was killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan today, the Ministry of Defence has said. The serviceman, from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), attached to the Light Dragoons, died from a blast, presumed to be caused by a roadside bomb, while on a vehicle patrol in Babaji, a district in southern Helmand province, this morning. The soldier was the first member of the British forces to be killed in Afghanistan this month after 22, including eight in 24 hours, were killed in July, the bloodiest month since the start of the campaign. Tonight Task Force Helmand spokesman lieutenant colonel Mark Wenham said: "It is with great regret that we report the death of another soldier on Operation Herick 10. The loss of a soldier, friend and colleague is tragic and our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time." The MoD said his next of kin had been informed and had asked for a 24 hour period of grace before further details were released. Today's death took the total number of British soldiers to have died in the country since the start of operations in 2001 to 192. The number of deaths last month fuelled a political row over a shortage of helicopters for British troops in southern Afghanistan and delays in procuring more. The Commons defence committee warned that British military operations in Afghanistan were being seriously undermined. Defence officials announced today that armour on the RAF's fleet of Merlin helicopters would be upgraded before they were deployed to carry equipment and troops on combat missions in Afghanistan. Tougher armour will be fixed to all 28 aircraft in the fleet. "They will be ready to perform a full range of tasks," officials said. "We will tell industry what we want to receive, they reply and cost it," they added.


            • August 6, 2009 -- A roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan has killed 21 people travelling to a wedding party on a tractor-trailer, officials said. Women and children were among the dead and five wounded in Garmser district, according to Assadullah Sherzad, the police chief of Helmand province. They were heading to the wedding yesterday morning.

              The bombing, which is being blamed on the Taliban, is one of the deadliest in a spate of recent attacks on civilians aimed at disrupting Afghanistan's presidential elections. "It's the work of the enemy of the nation, it's the work of the enemy of peace and the work of the Taliban," said General Sher Mohammad Zazai, the commander of an Afghan military unit in Helmand.

              Afghans go to the polls in two weeks. The Taliban have pledged to disrupt the vote and markedly increased their use of roadside bombs this year. The UN says civilian deaths have gone up by 24% in the conflict during the first half of 2009 compared with the same period last year.

              Afghanistan has this year seen the worst violence since the U.S.-led invasion. Last month U.S. and British forces launched simultaneous major operations in Helmand province. They are still fighting to secure areas previously held by the Taliban. A separate roadside bomb killed five police today in another part of Helmand province. The blast in the Nad Ali district struck a police vehicle. Three other police were wounded, the interior ministry said.

              Separately, local police said an air strike killed five farmers loading cucumbers into a taxi in southern Afghanistan. A U.S. spokeswoman said the five were militants placing explosives in a van. Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, a district police chief, said the air strike killed the five farmers late last night as they tried to move cucumbers from the rural Zhari district to the city of Kandahar.

              Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker said the men had been loading arms but the army would review footage from the Apache helicopter's video camera. The U.S. last month imposed rules attempting to limit civilian casualties in response to growing resentment at the deaths of ordinary Afghans.


              • August 6, 2009 -- Afghan officials have lowered the death toll in the bombing of a wedding party, saying five people, not 21, were killed when their vehicle hit a mine. Assadullah Sherzad, police chief of Helmand province, said an officer in Garmser district initially reported that 21 people were killed and five wounded when a tractor pulling them in a trailer to a wedding hit a roadside bomb yesterday morning. He said officers now reported that five people were killed and five wounded. A spokesman for the governor said the driver of the tractor was killed along with his wife, two children and another woman. Two other women were wounded.


                • Kabul, August 6, 2009 -- The pace of American combat deaths in Afghanistan has quickened anew as roadside bombs killed five U.S. troops in 24 hours in the same western province, the American military said today. The deaths bring to 11 the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan so far in August, on the heels of what was the worst month for Western and U.S. troop fatalities since the conflict began in 2001. Forty-three American servicemen died in July. Violence has been surging in advance of Afghanistan's presidential and provincial assembly elections, which are two weeks away. In addition to the troop fatalities, a total of 26 Afghans, most of them members of a wedding party, were reported killed in roadside bombings today.

                  The American deaths occurred in Farah province, bordering Iran, where a force consisting mainly of U.S. Marines staffs a string of small forward operating bases set deep in the desert. They are connected by a route that American forces have been struggling for months to keep free of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have made road travel extremely dangerous for villagers and military convoys alike. One of the fatalities took place Wednesday, and the other four, in a single incident, came today, the U.S. military said. Such "clusters" of fatalities are becoming less uncommon; three American soldiers were killed over the weekend in a single roadside bombing in the south.

                  Some American field commanders have said more insurgents may be moving into Farah in response to a major U.S. offensive in Helmand province, just to the south, which began in early July. But insurgents had been tightening their grip on Farah even before the Helmand offensive, dubbed Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword. Faced with a far stronger force of 4,000 Marines who have seized the lower Helmand River valley, insurgents have avoided a full-on battlefield confrontation, melting away into the countryside while redoubling their efforts to seed the roads with explosives.

                  The roadside bombings today in Helmand killed 21 (sic) members of a wedding party and five police officers, Afghan officials said. The first blast also injured at least five people, said Helmand's police chief, Asadullah Sherzad. The IED that hit the wedding party was almost certainly aimed at coalition troops. A tractor carrying the party, which included women and children, set off the buried bomb on a road in Garmser district, which Western troops have repeatedly tried to clear of insurgents. U.S. Marines occupied the district for much of last year, and returned with this month's offensive. Elsewhere in Helmand, a vehicle carrying Afghan police officers struck a roadside bomb in Nad Ali district, another insurgent stronghold. Five officers were killed and three injured, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

                  Meanwhile, controversy erupted over allegations that a Western airstrike late Wednesday resulted in civilian deaths in Kandahar province, which borders Helmand. The police chief in Zhari district said five farmers were killed as they loaded produce into a truck, preparing to take it to Kandahar city. The U.S. military, however, said it was believed that the five were loading the truck with munitions. Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a U.S. spokeswoman, said the incident would be investigated, including a review of cockpit video from the Apache attack helicopter that carried out the strike.

                  Civilian casualties are a point of major tension between Western forces and Afghan officials. A United Nations report said deaths and injuries to noncombatants rose nearly 25% in the first half of 2009, with about 60% of those casualties blamed on insurgents and the remainder on coalition forces. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's new secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is visiting Kabul, said at a news conference Wednesday that the alliance would do everything in its power to avoid causing civilian casualties. The new commander of American and Western forces, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has also ordered field commanders to make safeguarding civilian lives their top priority.


                  • August 7, 2009 -- Three British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were killed yesterday in Afghanistan, taking the total number of British casualties to 195. A fourth soldier was injured and remains in a critical condition from the roadside ambush. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the men died yesterday afternoon on a routine security patrol alongside Afghan security forces to the north of Lashkar Gah. Their Jackal vehicle was hit first by an explosion and then by gunfire. Their families have been notified. The MoD said they had requested a period of grace before names and any further details were released.

                    A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan paid tribute to the three soldiers. Brigadier-General Eric Tremblay said: "We are very saddened by the death of these fine soldiers and stand behind their bereaved families, friends and comrades. Our forces risk their lives every day to help eliminate Taliban oppression in Afghanistan. The insurgents have so many times proven to be ruthless to Afghans who dare not to co-operate with them or refuse to turn a blind eye to their criminal and brutal activities." Their deaths follow the loss on Tuesday of Anthony Lombardi, a 22-year-old vehicle mechanic, who was driving with a supply convoy when it was hit by a roadside bomb near Lashkar Gar.

                    July was the bloodiest month for British troops in the eight years of the war, with 22 deaths. The armed forces minister, Bill Rammell, insisted this week after a visit to Helmand province that morale remained high and the troops had a "clear sense of purpose", but the deaths come against a background of growing criticism of the equipping of British forces and the point of their continuing presence. Troops are now committed to the second stage of Operation Panther's Claw, which the MoD says is focused on holding ground won from the Taliban in recent weeks.

                    NATO's new secretary general said today that more troops were needed if the mission in Afghanistan was to be successful. Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO would need to step up military efforts in the "coming months and years", alongside increased civil reconstruction. Speaking from Afghanistan on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "Honestly speaking I think we need more troops. I have seen progress in the south, not least thanks to the increase in the number of troops. So definitely the number of troops matters. However, we also have to realise that there is no military solution solely. We have to provide the Afghan people with better life opportunities as well if we are to win hearts and minds, and this will be at the core of our new strategy."


                    • August 9, 2009 -- A British soldier has been killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said today. The serviceman, from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, died yesterday east of Gereshk, in Helmand province. His next of kin have been informed. His death takes the British toll in Afghanistan since 2001 to 196. The soldier was on foot patrol at the time, the MoD said. NATO said he was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED).

                      Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wenham, a spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said: "Each and every loss that we sustain in Helmand sends reverberations throughout the brigade. Today we mourn the loss of a soldier who died working to make Afghanistan a better place. He was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, displaying bravery that was second to none. Our thoughts are with his family and we offer them our deepest and heartfelt condolences at this tragic time."

                      The death comes two days after three Paras were killed in southern Afghanistan. They were named as Corporal Kevin Mulligan, 26, who was the father of an unborn child, Lance Corporal Dale Hopkins, 23, and Private Kyle Adams, 21. The trio were working with special forces carrying out a routine security patrol with Afghan forces when their vehicle was struck by a bomb blast and came under small arms fire. A fourth member of the patrol injured in Thursday's attack remained in a critical condition. Five British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this month, following on from the record 22 fatalities in July.

                      The former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan criticised the MoD today for leaving heavily armoured vehicles "parked up doing nothing" at a UK base. Colonel Richard Kemp described as "extraordinary" pictures published by the News of the World showing large numbers of vehicles such as Ridgbacks, Bulldogs and Mastiffs at a facility in Gloucestershire. The MoD insisted the equipment at the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency site was to be fitted with armour and radios and undergo testing. Col Kemp said the numbers involved were "disproportionate" and questioned why the potentially life-saving hardware was not at the frontline.

                      "We are continuously told, by people from the Chief of the General Staff downward, that there is a shortage of the right vehicles in theatre," he told the newspaper. "It seems extraordinary that they should be sitting here parked up doing nothing whatsoever when they are needed out there. If you consider that the Viking in which Colonel [Rupert] Thorneloe was killed is a less-protected vehicle than a Mastiff or a Ridgback, you have to ask why they are still running around in Vikings when they could be using the other types of vehicles that are parked up in Gloucestershire," he said, referring to the highest-ranking British officer to be killed in more than 25 years.

                      An MoD spokesman said: "It is completely unsustainable to have all our vehicles in theatre at once. It is imperative that if the mission is to be sustainable, we need to have a fleet in theatre and in the UK for training, maintenance and critical upgrades. We have now spent over £1b on new vehicles for operations, with a total of 1,200 new vehicles supporting operations that have been ordered over the last two years. Vehicles are delivered to DSDA by industry where they are fitted with radios and armour and checked to ensure they are the correct standard to satisfy the troops on the ground. They are then either distributed to theatre, used for training or domestic purposes in the UK or held in reserve capability. Vehicles also go through maintenance at DSDA."


                      • August 13, 2009 -- Three British soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan today, taking the total number of UK deaths in the war to 199. The servicemen, two from 2nd Battalion The Rifles and the third from 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, were hit by an explosion while on a foot patrol near Sangin in Helmand province. Their families have been informed.


                        • August 14, 2009 -- Afghanistan has quietly passed a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands, despite international outrage over an earlier version of the legislation which President Hamid Karzai had promised to review. The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work. "It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying 'blood money' to a girl who was injured when he raped her," the U.S. charity Human Rights Watch said.

                          In early April, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown joined an international chorus of condemnation when the Guardian revealed that the earlier version of the law legalised rape within marriage, according to the UN. Although Karzai appeared to back down, activists say the revised version of the law still contains repressive measures and contradicts the Afghan constitution and international treaties signed by the country.

                          Islamic law experts and human rights activists say that although the language of the original law has been changed, many of the provisions that alarmed women's rights groups remain, including this one: "Tamkeen is the readiness of the wife to submit to her husband's reasonable sexual enjoyment, and her prohibition from going out of the house, except in extreme circumstances, without her husband's permission. If any of the above provisions are not followed by the wife she is considered disobedient."

                          The law has been backed by the hardline Shia cleric Ayatollah Mohseni, who is thought to have influence over the voting intentions of some of the country's Shias, which make up around 20% of the population. Karzai has assiduously courted such minority leaders in the run up to next Thursday's election, which is likely to be a close run thing, according to a poll released yesterday.

                          Human Rights Watch, which has obtained a copy of the final law, called on all candidates to pledge to repeal the law, which it says contradicts Afghanistan's own constitution. The group said that Karzai had "made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election". Brad Adams, the organisation's Asia director, said: "The rights of Afghan women are being ripped up by powerful men who are using women as pawns in manoeuvres to gain power. These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval."

                          The latest opinion poll by U.S. democracy group the International Republican Institute (IRI), showed that although Karzai was up 13 points to 44% since the last survey in May, his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, had soared from 7% to 26%. If those numbers prove accurate, it would mean the contest would have to go to a second round run-off vote in early October. In that scenario, 50% of voters said they would vote for Karzai and 29% for Abdullah. The survey was conducted in mid to late July, so it is not known whether Abdullah has made further gains on Karzai. He could further increase his chance of victory by joining forces with Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who is also running on a platform fiercely critical of Karzai. Fifty-eight per cent of the 2,400 people polled by IRI said they would like to see an alliance between Abdullah and Ghani, who is polling in fourth place.


                          • August 15, 2009 -- A suicide car bomb exploded outside the NATO-led military mission in Kabul today, killing seven Afghans and wounding 91 people - including NATO soldiers - in an attack that penetrated a heavily guarded neighbourhood five days before the country's presidential election. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast, which was interpreted as a warning to Afghans not to vote in only the second-ever direct presidential election. The bomber evaded several rings of Afghan police and detonated his explosives at the doorstep to the international military headquarters, sending the message that militants can attack anywhere.

                            The NATO headquarters, where its top commander, the U.S. general Stanley McChrystal is based, is next to the U.S. embassy and in the same street as the presidential palace. The explosion was the first major attack in Kabul since February, when eight Taliban militants struck three government buildings simultaneously in the heart of the city, an assault that killed 20 people and the eight assailants. Afghanistan has been braced for attacks ahead of the election, and international workers have been encouraged to work from home over the next week or to leave the country. US, NATO and Afghan troops have been deployed to protect voting sites, particularly in regions where militants hold sway.

                            Injured Afghans wandered the street after today's blast, with children – many of whom congregate outside the NATO gate to sell chewing gum to westerners – among the wounded. The Taliban said the NATO headquarters and the U.S. embassy were the targets of the attack. A top Kabul police official blamed al-Qaida. Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, the spokesman for the NATO-led force, said some soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force had been wounded but he did not say how many. The explosion occurred 30m from NATO's front gate, he said, adding that the Taliban were "indiscriminately killing civilians". Afghan security forces had stopped the vehicle in front of building, prompting the bomber to detonate the explosives, Tremblay said.

                            Awa Alam Nuristani, a member of parliament and President Hamid Karzai's campaign manager for women, and four Afghan soldiers were among the wounded, General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, said. "I was drinking tea in our office when a big explosion happened," said Abdul Fahim, an Afghan in his mid-20s who sustained leg injuries. "I lay on the ground and then I saw wounded victims everywhere, including police and civilians."

                            The chief of Kabul's criminal investigation department, Abdul Ghafar Sayadzada, said 272kgs of explosives had been used, an amount which suggested al-Qaida was involved. The attacker passed three police checkpoints, Sayadzada said. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the blast and said the bomb contained 500kgs of explosives. The attack falls in line with increasingly devastating and sophisticated strikes carried out by Afghan militants. The Taliban have carried out several coordinated attacks in recent months with multiple teams of insurgents assaulting government sites. Military analysts have said the increased sophistication comes from training by al-Qaida operatives.

                            NATO headquarters has several large, cement blocks and steel gates that prevent anyone from reaching the entrance, and the bomber was not able to breach those barriers. Afghanistan's transport ministry lies across the street from NATO headquarters. Mujahid said a suicide bomber named Ahmadullah from the Bagrami district of Kabul province carried out the attack. A driver from the nearby defence ministry said he had taken at least 12 people to the hospital. Most were seriously wounded, he said, requesting not to be named because of safety concerns. Kabul has been relatively quiet over the lastsix months, though militants have launched a barrage of rockets into the capital this month, most of which landed harmlessly in open spaces. Security has increased over the last several weeks in preparation for Thursday's vote.


                            • August 16, 2009 -- The death toll of British service personnel in Afghanistan has risen to 204, the Ministry of Defence announced , just hours after Gordon Brown spoke of a "day of mourning" when the milestone figure of 200 was reached. The 201st casualty came on Saturday when a soldier from 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, died from injuries sustained when a bomb exploded during a foot patrol near Sangin, in the southern province of Helmand. Last night the MoD revealed three more British soldiers had been killed, bringing the total deaths to 204. Earlier, the MoD had announced the 200th death, a member of 2nd Battalion, the Royal Welsh, who died at the Selly Oak military hospital in Birmingham from wounds suffered two days before during a vehicle patrol in Helmand. The deaths take to 67 the number of British troops killed in Afghanistan this year, half of them in July and August, as insurgents plant greater numbers of increasingly sophisticated and powerful roadside bombs. This tactical switch by the Taliban away from more frequent direct contact with British troops has focused public attention on the human cost of the war, as well as the reasons it is being waged. Brown said the campaign, which began at the end of 2001, was necessary to lessen the terrorism threat facing the UK: "Three-quarters of the terrorist plots that hit Britain derive from the mountain areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honour our commitment to maintain a stable Afghanistan."

                              Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth argued that the presidential elections were vital to see "the germ of Afghan democracy continue to grow". "It's not western-style democracy and it won't be for a very long time but we need this election to continue to move forward governance and Afghan democracy," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show. The Taliban is expected to increase attacks as the election date approaches. Seven people were killed and dozens injured on Saturday when a suspected Taliban suicide bomber detonated explosives outside the Nato headquarters in Kabul. However, the country's powerful intelligence chief confirmed yesterday that the government had successfully struck deals with some Taliban commanders to allow voting to go ahead, as revealed by the Guardian last week. Amrullah Saleh, the head Afghanistan's intelligence service, said some insurgent leaders had agreed to disobey Taliban leaders and not attack voters or polling stations. He said money had been paid as part of the deals. The defence minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, also announced that Afghan government forces would observe a ceasefire on Thursday. With just three days to go until presidential elections on Thursday, Hamid Karzai finally took part in a televised debate with his leading competitors yesterday, although the man polling in second place, Abdullah Abdullah, failed to turn up. The debate on state-run television saw a strong performance by Ramazan Bashardost, a populist anti-corruption campaigner and MP who used his airtime to attack Karzai's record and the rampant graft in the current government, which he said was the main cause of insecurity. Karzai defended his construction of schools, roads and basic infrastructure.


                              • August 18, 2009 -- A suicide car bomb attack on a convoy of foreign soldiers killed seven people, including NATO troops, and wounded 52 in Afghanistan today, as violence continued in the run-up to Thursday's election. Several vehicles were set on fire in the explosion on a road leading from Kabul to the U.S. airbase at Bagram. NATO said reports indicated that some of its troops "were killed and wounded in the blast", but gave no details. Two Afghan United Nations staff members were killed and another was wounded, the UN said. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the blast in a telephone conversation with the Associated Press. British troops were guarding the site of the explosion as rescuers took the wounded to hospitals.

                                The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Thursday's poll, and the car bombing was one of many attacks launched by militants today. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded when their vehicle struck a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. command said. There were rocket attacks on the presidential palace in Kabul and the police headquarters. In the southern province of Uruzgan, a suicide bomber struck the gates of an Afghan army base, killing three Afghan soldiers and two civilians, police said. Separately, two U.S. soldiers were killed and three others wounded by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan today. Despite the continued violence, commanders said NATO forces would call a temporary halt to their military campaign in Afghanistan for the vote. Foreign troops in the country would only carry out "operations that are deemed necessary to protect the population" on election day, an ISAF spokesman said. While the recent British military push in the southern province of Helmand, Operation Panther's Claw, is now completed, thousands of U.S. marines are still engaged in heavy fighting against insurgent forces, the biggest U.S. operation in Afghanistan to date.

                                The logistically fraught election has been dogged by allegations of poor process and corruption. Today, a BBC report alleged that one of its Afghan staff members had been offered 1,000 voting cards for sale at about £6 each. Some voters had been issued with multiple cards, and government staff had campaigned illegally for candidates, the report added. The Taliban leadership is attempting to disrupt the vote by redeploying some of its most hardline footsoldiers into areas where the Kabul government has made deals with individual insurgent commanders. Details of the move emerged as a statement, said to carry the authority of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, reiterated that the movement would attempt to stop Afghans from voting. An official within the interior ministry said Taliban fighters had been moving from "hardline provinces" such as the volatile Paktika and Paktia regions in the east, into "less hardline" areas such as Wardak and Ghazni, south of Kabul. On Sunday, the country's intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, announced that commanders across the south had been paid not to interfere with the elections. The interior ministry official said the government was receiving "mixed reports" about how much violence could be expected on election day: "Some commanders are still saying they will fight, while in other areas, the threat is coming from outsiders."

                                For months, Taliban fighters have been dropping messages in villages – so-called "night letters" – threatening to punish anyone who attempts to vote on Thursday. One threat is that anyone found with indelible ink on their finger – given to anyone who casts a vote to prevent double voting – will have their finger cut off. Haroun Mir, a former special adviser to the anti-Soviet resistance fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, said the mere threat of retributions could "undermine the legitimacy of the whole election". "Even with these ceasefires, no one living in areas of Taliban influence will want to take the risk of going out to vote," he said. "We could end up with the half of the country that lives in the north picking the next president, which could lead to some very big fights in the future." Election officials say around 10% of the approximately 7,000 polling centres may not be able to open because of threats, although the final number will not be known until just before polls open.


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