Afghanistan – Taliban bombers, some disguised as women with suicide vests hidden under their burqas, stormed government buildings near Kabul on Monday in a brazen strike just 10 days before a presidential election.
Gunbattles lasted for hours and smoke poured from blasted buildings in Pul-e-Alam, capital of Logar province, about an hour's drive from Kabul. Three policemen and two civilians were killed, along with six militants, said Deen Mohammad Darwish, spokesman for the provincial governor.
The attack was the latest in a series of brazen assaults in the runup to the August 20 election. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll and the United Nations says spiraling violence threatens to keep many Afghans from voting.
Reuters reporters who arrived at the scene of Monday's fighting, while some of the fighters were holed up in a building, saw two Apache helicopters swooping overhead. Three loud blasts could be heard.
Shops had been destroyed by explosions and a tractor in front of the building was ablaze.
Darwish said two of the suicide bombers had blown themselves up outside a government building. Four others seized the building and were eventually killed in hours of gunbattles with police, three of them detonating their vests as police fired at them.
Residents said they feared more violence to come.
Things will only get worse with the election, shopkeeper Faizal Ahmad said. We will have no security in the future.
Even as the attack was under way, President Hamid Karzai repeated an earlier pledge to invite the Taliban and other militants to a loya jirga, or grand assembly of tribal chiefs, in a peace overture if he is re-elected. The promise won loud applause from a crowd of followers.
Karzai has made a push for peace talks one of his main campaign pledges in the runup to the election. The Taliban says it will not accept talks unless foreign troops leave the country.
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.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that six fighters wearing vests packed with explosives had attacked the governor's office, police headquarters and election offices in Pul-e-Alam, 70 kms (45 miles) from Kabul.
The attack followed the pattern of similar assaults in the eastern cities of Khost and Gardez last month.
As Afghan forces battled to reclaim the police headquarters and governor's office, witnesses reported seeing at least one U.S. Apache attack helicopter fire on the compound.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said ISAF troops helped defuse explosives found in one building.
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.
THINGS WILL GET WORSE
Karzai is the front-runner to retain power against a field of 35 challengers, although violence in the south could cause low turnout there, costing him votes in his traditional power base.
Although no challenger is seen as able to beat him outright, if no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, Karzai would face a risky second-round runoff.
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 (http://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 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 further escalated sharply in July after major offensives were launched in southern Helmand province.
Last month saw 76 foreign troops die in Afghanistan, making it by far their deadliest month. August is already on track to match the July toll.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Writing
by Paul Tait; Editing by David Fox)