Security measures make Kandahar a ghost town ahead of Afghan vote

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Fri Apr 4, 2014 7:22am EDT

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Kandahar city, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, woke up a ghost town on Friday as police erected roadblocks as part of stringent security measures ahead of a presidential election that could mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power.

To its residents accustomed to decades of war, rule by the Taliban, the arrival of foreign troops and, now, their imminent departure, the empty streets and shuttered shops amounted to little more than an inconvenience.

But to Kandahar's governor, keeping the Taliban from derailing the election in the city, a traditional stronghold of Afghanistan's main Pashtun ethnic group, is crucial to the future.

The empty streets followed an order from the police chief to block off key areas to try to ensure security in a town with a difficult history.

If the vote fails to take place normally in Kandahar, there is less chance the tribes that have controlled the country for centuries will accept the outcome. Divisions could once again tip the country into civil war.

"It all depends on the security situation on the day," said Governor Toryalai Wesa. "Kandahar means Afghanistan. Why? Because the history of Afghanistan was always determined from here. At least for the last 300 years."

The police chief, General Abdul Raziq, said no curfew had been imposed, but roadblocks were in place to uphold security.

"We didn't give orders to close the shops, it's the people who don't want to open the shops because the roads are blocked for security reasons," he told reporters. "We have provided special transportation in the city."

Passes would be granted to vehicles on a case by case basis to allow private cars into certain areas, he said.

Children took advantage of the empty streets, playing games by the checkpoints, improvised with barbed wire and army trucks and guarded by young men swinging AK-47s over their shoulders.

Residents said police had warned shopkeepers against opening. Some even punctured tyres of cars and other vehicles to keep motorists off the roads.

"We want security, but not this type of security," complained one resident, perched among the pillows of his living room. "People can't leave their homes."

In the background, a local television channel broadcast messages instructing people to stay home and to call a hotline in case of an emergency.

HOTBED OF INSURGENT ACTIVITY

Once the most violent city in Afghanistan, a period of relative peace has again been shattered by attacks on its local council and offices of the national intelligence agency.

The attacks have barely made an impression on some of Kandahar's hardiest residents — who have taken to holding up the example of Kabul as the real hotbed of insurgent activity after a flurry of attacks this week.

But many fear even the toughest security measures may not be enough to stop attacks.

Nowhere is the fear more tangible — or justified — than at the Independent Election Commission headquarters, a compound near a vast graveyard of Russian tanks, a reminder of the disastrous 10-year Soviet intervention in the country.

Having watched its counterparts in Kabul hit twice by the Taliban in the past week, some Commission employees are finding work unusually uncomfortable.

Only two days earlier, five insurgents were detained with explosives they had planned to use against the Commission on election day, according to the intelligence agency.

"Every day we feel fear, because there was an attack already, several attacks on our central office in Kabul and we are afraid that we may be attacked too," said Hayatullah, a field training officer.

Staff at the commission's security department were more relaxed.

"The Taliban may try to do something, but I am sure they will not succeed because we have enough security," said IEC security official Engineer Mohammad Saheed.

"I don't have any tension about the election."

He cited the example of the five suicide bombers arrested this week as an indication that security forces were in control.

At a polling station being set up at a school, the headmaster told foreign journalists their presence was a sign that security was good. He was speaking before a policeman killed one foreign journalist and wounded another in eastern Afghanistan.

"We hope that there will be no problem in the city, even though we heard anti-government elements are trying to do something," he told them. "Maybe in those areas that are insecure and in remote areas there will be problems."

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

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