August 11, 2009 / 12:48 PM / 10 years ago

Afghan leader sees peaceful poll, troops ambushed

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban will not be able to derail this month’s Afghan elections, President Hamid Karzai vowed on Tuesday, as military officials said at least seven Afghan and foreign troops had been killed in the latest violence.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers patrol a road in Kandagal in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province August 1, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the August 20 presidential and provincial council polls, with attacks against candidates and campaign officials increasing amid a dramatic escalation of violence across the country in recent weeks.

But Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, urged Afghan voters to brush aside the threats despite brazen attacks by suicide bombers near Kabul and the deadly ambush of troops by militants in the past two days.

“The elections will pass peacefully ... the enemies of Afghanistan will try to create some chaos, (but) you don’t bother about it,” Karzai told supporters at a Kabul high school, saying it was vital for Afghans to vote.

The Taliban — “Afghanistan’s enemies,” as officials often describe them — have urged voters to boycott the poll and have issued threats of violence against voters in some areas, particularly in their southern and eastern strongholds.

With August following the pattern of July, the deadliest month of the 8-year-old-war for foreign troops, the U.S. military said three more Americans had been killed in three separate incidents in the volatile south since Saturday.

U.S. Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a media officer for U.S. and NATO-led troops, confirmed the nationality of the three International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) service members as Americans but gave no further details.

At least 41 U.S. troops were killed in July, when U.S. and British troops launched major offensives in southern Helmand province, part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

DEADLY AMBUSH

In eastern Ghazni, about two hour’s drive from Kabul, at least three Afghan soldiers and another foreign service member were killed in an ambush by Taliban fighters firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on Monday, military officials said.

Police in the area said as many as eight Afghans may have been killed in the attack on a convoy carrying supplies and election information to a remote district.

ISAF spokeswoman U.S. Captain Regina Gillis said there were “multiple” Afghan casualties. She said the dead foreign service member was not American but gave no other details.

In Warsaw, Poland’s Defense Ministry said a Polish captain missing in action overnight had been found dead and four other soldiers had been wounded in a firefight. Poland has a provincial reconstruction team based in Ghazni.

Early this month the Taliban posted “night letters — posters pasted in mosques and on village walls — warning voters in Ghazni not to leave their homes on polling day.

Specific threats have also been issued in the south but the Taliban’s influence in the previously more stable north and west has also been growing, U.S. commanders and research analysts have said in the past week, raising concerns about voter turnout.

Karzai has long been regarded as the front-runner in a slowly diminishing field of 35 challengers, but the possibility of poor voter turnout in the south, his traditional ethnic Pashtun powerbase, has muddied the electoral waters considerably.

Karzai, who won Afghanistan’s first direct vote in 2004 with about 55 percent of the vote, must again pass the 50 percent mark to retain power on August 20 and avoid a second-round run-off.

A runoff raises the possibility for Karzai’s opponents to unite behind one challenger, potentially one of his main rivals such as former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, or for a minor candidate to emerge as a serious power-broker.

On Monday, a U.S.-funded opinion poll by little-known Washington firm Glevum Associates found Karzai was comfortably in the lead but not by enough to avoid a run-off vote.

In a research report last week, independent think tank the International Council on Security and Development warned that Afghanistan risked being plunged into political and ethnic violence if the election went to a second round.

This in turn would give the Taliban the opportunity to step up attacks and expand their territory, it said.

The commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, said in a Wall Street Journal interview published on Monday that the Taliban had already gained momentum as it expanded aggressively into the north and west.

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL; Editing by David Fox

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