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By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, July 30 The Taliban in Afghanistan warned on Thursday it would attempt to derail next month's presidential election, calling on Afghans to boycott the poll and urging them to "join the trenches of jihad".
Afghan and foreign troops are battling a growing Taliban-led insurgency across Afghanistan, with attacks escalating after thousands of U.S. and British troops launched major operations in southern Helmand province this month.
The increased violence coincides with campaigning for the Aug. 20 poll, the second direct vote for president since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
A statement issued by the Taliban's leadership council and posted on a website it uses (www.alemarah1.net), said the election was a U.S. "invention" and urged voters to join them instead of taking part in a poll it labelled a farce.
"All mujahideen should strongly focus on making this process fail ... strike the enemy's bases and stop people from taking part in the election," the statement, in Pashtu, said.
"All Afghans, due to their Islamic and national sentiments, need to totally boycott this seductive U.S. process and ... join the trenches of jihad," it said.
The statement was the first of its kind issued by the Taliban urging the direct disruption of the election.
Before the Helmand operations, attacks this year had already reached their worst level since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.
The election has already come under attack, with three candidates or campaign officials ambushed within the past week. One included President Hamid Karzai's senior vice-presidential running mate Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who escaped unhurt. [ID:nSP496282]
One of Karzai's campaign offices in western Herat was bombed on Tuesday but there were no casualties.
Karzai is seen as a clear front-runner ahead of 36 challengers, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani seen among few serious contenders. Four candidates have pulled out so far.
BLOCK ROADS, DISRUPT POLL
Karzai has ruled Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led Afghan forces in 2001 and won Afghanistan's first direct vote for president in 2004.
The Taliban accused Karzai of not having the courage to stand up to the Americans. There was no immediate comment from the presidential palace in response to the Taliban's statement.
The statement by the Taliban said all roads should be blocked before polling takes place and voters told about the plan to disrupt the election.
The statement came just three days after the Afghan government said it had struck a truce deal with the Taliban in northwestern Badghis province after mediation by tribal elders The Taliban have denied there was any truce.
The Badghis deal was meant to allow candidates to campaign in the province and voters to cast their ballots safely.
Zekriya Barakzai, deputy chief of the government-appointed election commission, said on Thursday tribal elders in other areas were being asked to help mediate similar deals.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in a speech in Brussels, stressed the need for "reintegration" and for a long-term political solution to separate Taliban foot soldiers from those committed to violent global jihad, or holy war.
(Editing by Paul Tait and Sanjeev Miglani)