Afghanistan - At least three Afghan police and two civilians were killed in a brazen attack by Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers on government buildings near Kabul on Monday, officials said, 10 days before elections.
The attack, the latest in a series of assaults before the August 20 presidential election, came after U.S. commanders said the war in Afghanistan had not reached a crisis point even though the Taliban had gained momentum.
Deen Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the governor of Logar province, about an hour's drive south of the capital, Kabul, said one Taliban attacker was also killed along with the police and civilians. Witnesses said gunbattles lasted several hours.
The Taliban last month vowed to disrupt the election, calling on Afghans to boycott the vote. There has been a spate of ambushes on candidates, campaign workers and election officials before and after that warning.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said six fighters wearing vests packed with explosives had attacked the governor's office, police headquarters and election offices in Pule Alam, 70 kms (45 miles) from Kabul.
The attack followed a brazen pattern of assaults in the eastern cities of Khost and Gardez last month.
Darwish said fighting was continuing as Afghan security forces battled to reclaim the police headquarters and governor's office. A major highway linking Kabul to provinces in the southeast was closed because of the fighting, he said.
Abdul Rahim, an aid worker in an office next to the police building, said five police were killed and 26 people wounded. He said at least three of the attackers were dressed in burqas, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Afghan women.
Reuters reporters in the city heard at least three loud blasts and sporadic gunfire after Afghan security forces counter-attacked. Thick smoke poured from the police building as U.S. Apache attack helicopters hovered overhead.
THINGS WILL GET WORSE
With U.N. officials acknowledging on Sunday that violence and poor security had hampered election preparations in some areas, residents in Pule Alam feared it would deteriorate further.
Things will only get worse with the election, shopkeeper Faizal Ahmad said. We will have no security in the future.
President Hamid Karzai is the front-runner to retain power over a field of 35 challengers but poor security in the south, his traditional ethnic Pashtun power base, looms as a potential problem if it results in poor voter turnout, analysts have said.
Poor Pashtun turnout could mean no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, requiring a second-round runoff when challengers could form a coalition behind one of Karzai's main rivals, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
In an interview published earlier on Monday, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal said the Taliban had gained momentum recently, advancing out of traditional strongholds in the south and east into the relatively more peaceful north and west.
It's a very aggressive enemy right now, McChrystal told The Wall Street Journal newspaper (online.wsj.com/).
We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work, said McChrystal, who will present an assessment of the war to Washington after the August 20 election.
Violence across Afghanistan this year had already reached its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led Afghan forces in 2001 and escalated dramatically after major offensives were launched in southern Helmand province in July.
July quickly became the deadliest month of the war for foreign troops, with at least 71 killed. At least 41 U.S. troops were killed, more than the previous monthly high of 26 killed in September 2008.
Despite the Taliban gains and growing military casualties -- August is already on track to match or pass the July toll -- U.S. national security adviser Jim Jones said the war had not reached a crisis point.
I don't think we're at a crisis level where there is any move by the Taliban to overthrow the government, Jones told the CBS program Face the Nation.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Writing
by Paul Tait; Editing by David Fox)