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Suicide car bomb, rockets strike Kabul ahead of vote

Suicide car bomb, rockets strike Kabul ahead of vote

A suicide bomber rammed a bomb laden car into a military convoy.

Kabul: A suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden car into a Western military convoy in the Afghan capital on Tuesday and a Taliban rocket hit the presidential palace grounds just two days before incumbent Hamid Karzai seeks re-election.

Tolo television quoted officials at an Afghan military hospital as saying two people had been killed and 16 wounded, while police detective Abdul Ghafar Sayed-Zada said the target appeared to be a Western military food convoy, although most of the casualties were civilian bystanders.

With Karzai fighting to win a fresh mandate without a second round run-off, the election is also a test of US President Barack Obama's strategy of escalating the eight-year-old conflict in an effort to reverse recent Taliban gains.

In a speech on Monday aimed at bolstering public support, Obama called the Afghan conflict "a war worth fighting".

Taliban militants have vowed to step up that fight and disrupt the poll with violence that could damage the election's legitimacy by cutting turnout.

Several small rockets were fired overnight at the capital and a police source said one caused some damage inside the sprawling, fortified presidential palace compound and a second hit the capital's police headquarters. Neither caused any casualties.

In Uruzgan province in the south, a suicide bomber on foot struck a police checkpoint, killing three Afghan soldiers and two civilians. A provincial council candidate, meanwhile, was shot dead in northern Jowzjan province.

Election campaigning officially ended at midnight after a final day that saw hectic rallies in support of Karzai and his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Polls show Karzai likely to win Thursday's vote, but not with the outright majority required to avoid a second round in six weeks. The president is relying on the last-minute support of former guerrilla chieftains in a bid to tip the balance.

Abdullah, an urbane eye doctor, has run an energetic campaign, seeking to garner support from beyond his base in the mainly ethnic-Tajik north.

Recent polls give Karzai about 45 per cent of the vote to 25 per cent for Abdullah. Since the polls were conducted, Karzai has secured the last-minute endorsements of some former militia chieftains, hoping they help secure a first round victory.

Karzai's reliance on the ex-militia leaders has raised alarm among his international backers worried that warlords could return to power in the country they dominated for decades.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader who won 10 percent of the vote in 2004, returned to the country from exile in Turkey and held a huge pro-Karzai rally in his northern home city of Shiberghen on Monday.

The United States and the United Nations both expressed concern that Dostum could return to government. Washington said he may have been responsible for human rights violations.

Taliban disruption could hurt Karzai's chance of a first-round win by lowering turnout in southern areas most affected by the insurgency, heartland of the Karzai's support.

More than 30,000 extra US troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the total number of Western troops above 100,000 for the first time, including 62,000 Americans.

The Western troops will maintain outer perimeter security during the election, with Afghan soldiers and police guarding towns and polling stations. The NATO-led Western force said on Tuesday it would refrain from conducting offensive operations on election day, in line with an earlier pledge from Afghan troops.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a message sent to Reuters via mobile phone, claimed they had fired four rockets at Kabul overnight -- the third time this month.

On Saturday the Taliban detonated a massive suicide car bomb outside the headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in central Kabul, killing seven people and wounding dozens more.

Such attacks have been rare in the capital this year.

first published:August 18, 2009, 17:33 IST