KABUL Afghanistan's interior minister said on Sunday the Taliban have stepped up their attacks in many parts of the country and warned the Islamist militants would attempt to sabotage an August 20 presidential election.
Hanif Atmar's comments mirror those of U.S. and NATO military commanders who said insurgent attacks soared 59 percent in the first five months of 2009 compared with the same period last year to reach the highest level since the Taliban's overthrow in 2001.
Like U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus, who is responsible for U.S. military strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, Atmar also warned worse was to come as more U.S. and Afghan troops pursue Taliban fighters in their strongholds.
The August election, Afghanistan's second presidential poll, is seen as a crucial point for both Kabul and its Western-backed government and for Washington, which has identified Afghanistan as its top military priority.
Washington has already increased its military presence to 56,000 troops, up from about 32,000 in late 2008, in part to provide extra security for the August vote. U.S. troop numbers will rise further to 68,000 by year's end.
Atmar said more than 250 people, many of them militants and
including some foreign insurgents, were killed during attacks by the Taliban in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces last week. Police and civilians were also among the dead.
Petraeus identified the past week as having the most security incidents in Afghanistan's "post-liberation history."
The number of attacks, which included suicide strikes, roadside bombings and ambushes, was 40 percent higher than the previous week, Atmar told a news conference.
He said the escalation in attacks came with the thawing of snow in the mountains to mark the start of the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan. He said the militants also had two other purposes.
"The enemy wants to totally hinder this (poll) process ... and wants to send a message to the international community that even if you increase your troops, we will step up our attacks," Atmar said.
He said the Afghan government, with the help of its foreign backers, would do all it could to stop the Taliban achieving its aims.
Access to more money and arms from overseas had enabled the Taliban to increase their attacks, he said, reiterating that their main source of support was in the mountainous tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan.
U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban government after its leadership refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for masterminding the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The Taliban have called the August poll a sham and have vowed to drive foreign troops from Afghanistan.
(Editing by Paul Tait)