Gunmen kill Afghan election candidate

KABUL Sat Aug 28, 2010 3:51pm EDT

KABUL (Reuters) - Unidentified gunmen killed a candidate for Afghanistan's parliamentary elections in the west of the country Saturday, a government official said, the fourth candidate to be killed ahead of the September 18 poll.

The election is being seen as a key test of stability in Afghanistan, where violence is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, before President Barack Obama conducts a review of his Afghan war strategy in December.

Poor security, particularly in Taliban strongholds in the south and east, already looms as the biggest challenge to the ballot, along with corruption and fraud.

Candidate Haji Abdul Manan was killed as he walked from his home to a mosque for evening prayers, said Lal Mohammad Omarzai, governor of Shindand district in western Herat province, normally a relatively peaceful area near the border with Iran.

Omarzai said two gunmen on a motorcycle rode up beside Manan and opened fire.

Thursday, 10 election campaign workers and relatives of a female candidate, Fawzia Gilani, were reported missing in Herat. Officials said it was not known if they were kidnapped by political rivals or the Taliban.

The United Nations, which helped oversee last year's fraud-marred presidential vote, said two weeks ago three candidates had been killed and that widespread intimidation of female candidates and other poll violence had been observed.

About 2,500 candidates are contesting the ballot for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Election officials said this month more than 900 of 6,835 planned polling centers would not open because of poor security.

The Taliban tried, with limited success, to disrupt a 2005 parliamentary vote and last year's 2009 presidential vote but insurgents so far have made no direct threats to the poll.

Of the 249 seats, 65 are set aside for women and there are about 385 female candidates.

(Reporting by Yousuf Azimi; Editing by Paul Tait)