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NATO, Afghans say ready to secure August 20 poll

KABUL (Reuters) - NATO-led and Afghan forces are ready to secure all polling centres which open for the August 20 presidential poll, officials said on Wednesday, but it was still unclear how many centres in insecure areas would remain closed.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election and have called on Afghans to boycott the ballot, issuing threats in some parts of the country against those who turn up on polling day. The election will be Afghanistan’s second direct vote since 2001.

New NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Afghans to defy the Taliban’s threats and turn out to vote.

“It’s important for the Afghan people to demonstrate that you do not bow to threats and violence,” Rasmussen told a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimy said security forces were ready to counter the insurgents’ threats.

“We expect that no major security incident will take place during the elections,” Azimy told reporters.

Violence across Afghanistan this year has reached its worst levels since U.S.-led Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 and escalated further after U.S. and British troops launched offensives in southern Helmand over the past two months.

At least 71 international troops were killed in July, the worst monthly toll for foreign forces since the start of the war.

More than 1,000 civilians were killed between January and June this year, up from 818 in the same period last year, the United Nations said last month.

NEW AREAS SECURED

Canadian Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), did not say how many polling centres would remain closed but said recent military operations had secured new areas, allowing more Afghans to register to vote and to cast their ballots come polling day.

Mohammad Hashim, head of operations at the Independent Election Commission, said ISAF and the IEC were still discussing how many polling centres would be open on election day. He said the figure would be decided on August 15.

Azimy said there would be more polling centres open this year than in the last poll in 2004, when about 4,800 of 6,000 opened.

After thousands of British soldiers and U.S. Marines drove insurgents out of the populated areas, registration teams have been able to sign up moderate numbers of voters in areas of Helmand where poor security had prevented previous attempts.

Ten districts across the country, five of them in Helmand, were unable to carry out voter registration earlier this year because of poor security.

Military commanders in the south have warned that insurgents will start to infiltrate back into those areas.

“Even though we will do our best, you can never reduce risk to nil ... there will always be residual risk,” Tremblay said.

Editing by Paul Tait

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