World News

Afghans to shut 900 polling centers on security fears

KABUL (Reuters) - More than 900 polling centers for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections next month will not open because of security fears, an official said on Wednesday, adding to concerns after a fraud-marred presidential vote last year.

The poll will be a litmus test for stability in Afghanistan and will be conducted against a backdrop of rising violence as the Taliban-led insurgency spreads out of traditional strongholds in the south and east into the north and west.

A U.N.-backed elections watchdog has already blocked dozens of candidates from taking part in the September 18 election because of their links to private militias.

“We have to accept this bitter fact that some 938 polling centers will remain closed due to security problems during the election,” said Ahmad Mahnawi Fazel, chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC).

“As you all know security is the backbone of the election,” he told a news conference in Kabul.

The IEC had originally planned to open 6,835 polling centers which would operate 19,945 voting stations.

However, Mahnawi said Afghan forces could only provide security for 5,897 of the polling centers.

He said those that would not be able to open were spread across 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces but most were in the south and the east, the heartland of the insurgency.

He said voters in those areas would have to travel to other, safer polling centers to cast their ballots.

Security is the prime concern for a vote that will underpin Karzai’s ability to deliver on promised anti-corruption and development reforms.

Despite the presence of around 150,000 foreign troops, violence across Afghanistan has hit its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

Foreign military deaths have passed 2,000 and, according to a U.N. report last week, civilian casualties rose 31 percent in the first six months of this year.

The Taliban have already begun a campaign to threaten the election, with the United Nations saying last week three candidates have been killed.

More than 2,500 candidates will stand for the 249 seats in the lower house Wolesi Jirga, including about 400 women candidates in the traditionally male-dominated society.

More than a third of Karzai’s votes were thrown out as fake after a U.N.-backed probe into last year’s presidential poll.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Paul Tait