Thursday, August 20, 2009

Miranshah: Three killed in suspected US drone attack

MIRANSHAH: At least three people were killed in suspected US drone strike in the Danday Darpa Khel area of Miranshah early on Friday before dawn, meanwhile following the drone attack, the suspected militants carried out attacks on various security forces check posts set up in the area, Geo news reported.According to sources, a missile was fired from a US drone plane, killing three miscreants which enraged militants who late on, launched attacks on security forces check posts located near Miranshsh airbase namely; Ameen check post, Colony check post, and Ghulam Khan Road check post.The security forces retaliated militants’ attack while the exchange of fire between security forces and miscreants was continued as per latest information, sources said.Curfew for an indefinite period has been clamped in Miranshah following the incident, sources claimed.

Bomb wounds 7 close to Pakistan capital

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — A bomb exploded at a security checkpoint close to the Pakistani capital late Thursday, wounding seven people.
Pakistan is battling Islamist militants blamed for scores of bloody bombings over the last two years.
Authorities have been bracing for attacks after the reported death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in an Aug. 5 CIA missile strike in a tribal region close to the Afghan border.
The blast took place at police checkpoint in Rawalpindi, a large garrison city 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the capital Islamabad.
Police officer Rana Shahid said four police and three civilians were wounded. The extent of their injuries was not known.
Shahid said the bomb had apparently been hidden close to the checkpoint and detonated by remote control or timer.
A white car belonging to a police officer was badly damaged in the attack.

Obama: Afghan Election 'Successful'

U.S. President Barack Obama says Afghanistan's elections appear to have been successful, despite attempts by the Taliban to disrupt them with violence.He made the comment in a U.S. radio interview Thursday with host Michael Smerconish on Philadelphia's WPHT. Mr. Obama also promised the U.S. military will keep up the pressure on insurgents in Afghanistan to drive them out of their safe havens.With Thursday's voting completed, Afghani officials are calling the election a success. But scattered violence killed at least 26 people across the country, it is not clear how many people voted, and there are reports of voting irregularities.The victims include nine civilians, nine police officers and eight Afghan soldiers. Attacks were reported in Kabul, Kandahar and other major cities.Election workers are now counting the votes, a process that could take several days before initial results are known.
In Kabul and in northern Afghanistan, voting was steady in some polling centers throughout the day. In the south and east, where fears of Taliban attacks were strongest, there were reports of very low participation.A low voter turnout could damage the election's credibility and undermine support for the winner.Deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barakzai says officials will investigate all claims of fraud that have been made. Presidential candidates have accused one another of stuffing ballot boxes, printing fake voter cards and tampering with the indelible ink that marks voters fingers to prevent them casting multiple ballots.Incumbent President Hamid Karzai is the frontrunner in a field of more than 30 presidential candidates, although his once-comfortable lead shrank as election day neared. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is considered his closest challenger.Other leading candidates are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and Ramazan Bashardost, a popular lawmaker from Kabul. Candidates must get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off. Voters Thursday also cast ballots for advisory provincial councils. Security was tight, involving hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police.

Counting Starts After Afghans Defy Militant Threats to Vote

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defying Taliban warnings and scattered attacks, Afghans voted Thursday in an election that has become a critical benchmark of the nation’s progress for both the Afghan government and the Obama administration.

The polls closed at 5 p.m. in Afghanistan, and the vote-counting began immediately. Despite the apparently low turnout in the south and complaints from some candidates about fraud, Afghan and American officials were quick to congratulate Afghans for voting despite the violence.

“On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that the Taliban utterly failed to disrupt these elections,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the American special envoy to the region, in an interview after he toured four polling stations in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai, at a news conference at the presidential palace as the polls were closing, said there had been 73 episodes of violence in 15 provinces.

“The Afghan people dared bombs, rockets and intimidations, but came out and voted,” Mr. Karzai said. “Let’s see what the turnout was.”

Mr. Karzai’s main opponent, the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, called the low turnout in Kabul, “unsatisfactory.” He added that his supporters were lodging complaints of fraud, in particular from the southern province of Kandahar.

But even though it was too early to tell, Mr. Abdullah said preliminary results were hopeful, and he called the day a victory for the people of Afghanistan.

“Despite all the difficulties, despite all the security problems and other problems, people went to the polls, and they participated in this day,” he said at a news conference in the garden of his home. “And in fact they stood up to those who wanted to take away the people’s right to choose their destiny.”

Insurgents in the south threw up makeshift roadblocks in one area to warn off voters, and in Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted.

“I know the Taliban threaten people not to vote, but I am coming and using my vote,” said Bakht Muhammad, 24, after he voted in Kandahar. “I want change. I want security. I want to live my life in our country.”

Even as officials from the Obama administration, on hand to monitor the elections, expressed reserved optimism that the voting was transparent, they fretted about whether the ballot counting would be equally so.

Mr. Holbrooke, speaking to reporters at one of the polling stations in Kabul cautioned: “The test is going to be in the counting. If the will of the electorate is going to be thwarted, it will happen in the counting.”

The polls opened at 7 a.m. As early as 8 a.m. in Kabul, officials at the American Embassy were hearing complaints of fraud. Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who is one of the presidential candidates, e-mailed American officials to say that he had reports that his opponents were stuffing ballot boxes. Other presidential candidates were making similar complaints to American officials, who referred them to the national election body.

“All the candidates and the rivals sent their complaints to the Independent Election Commission,” Mr. Karzai said, adding: “There is another commission called the Complaint Commission and they will evaluate and assess the complaints and I will not talk about it.”

As the suspicions of election fraud continued throughout the day, there were reports of sporadic violence that began in the morning as polls opened.

In Kabul, the Afghan police fought a gun battle on Thursday with three men who took over a house overlooking police headquarters in the Kart-e-Now district of the capital, killing two of them and capturing one, a police official said at the scene as bystanders applauded the officers who had fought the insurgents. The men were suspected of being suicide attackers sent by the Taliban.

The owner of the house, Naser, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was leaving to go vote when the gunmen stormed inside. “I went out with my boys to go to the polling station,” he said. “As soon as I got out of my house I saw two armed people enter it.” Naser said the gunmen told him to go away, and he soon witnessed the exchange of gunfire.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told Reuters earlier that three Taliban guerrillas were involved in the shooting, which seemed to be part of a strategy to disrupt an election that is proving tighter than expected.

In Kandahar, there were few people on the streets after nine rockets were fired. But when the rocket fire eased, people slowly began making their way to the polling stations.

Sharina, a 30-year-old voter in Kandahar, said she was “scared of bombs and suicide bombers, but I have to take all this risk and participate in the election.”

But Bismillah Jan, 30, said he had told his family not to vote. “I am not afraid of the Taliban’s warning, but I am afraid of bombs and suicide explosions, so I will not let my family participate in the elections,” he said.

In the province of Wardak, an hour’s drive south of Kabul, there were more security officials than voters at many polling stations after a barrage of six rockets fell just before the polls opened and three more followed soon afterward.

A mechanic, Qudratullah, 32, who like many Afghans has only one name, said he encountered Taliban representatives on the road from Narkh District, just over a mile from the provincial capital of Wardak. “They were standing on the road telling people not to vote,” he said. “Of course I am scared,” he said. But he voted nonetheless. “We want to see change and a younger generation in a better condition.”

In Kabul, Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Defense Ministry, said on television that the voting process was proceeding better than expected. In the southern province of Paktia, he said, two would-be suicide bombers were shot to death before they could detonate their explosives. Some 300,000 security personnel members from Afghan and NATO forces were deployed to guard the polls, he said.

But residents of Kabul said the turnout seemed lower than in previous elections in 2004 and 2005. At one polling station, Mitra Hemat, 24, an election worker, said the turnout was significantly down. “There are very few people,” she said. “People are afraid, I can tell.”

The major question at the election, diplomats and analysts said, is whether President Karzai will succeed in winning over 50 percent of the vote in the first round, securing a victory, or be pushed into a second, more unpredictable round of voting.

A vast field of 34 opponents and a last-minute surge by his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, as well as Taliban intimidation in the volatile south, which is Mr. Karzai’s base, threatened to chip away at the president’s support.

The election unfolded under high expectations among some Afghans that it would bring change. “I am happy to use my vote, and I hope things will change and peace will knock at our door,” said Zainab, a 40-year-old voter in Kandahar. “I am telling the world we want peace and stability in Afghanistan, I am telling the next president to restore peace and give Afghans the chance to work, I am telling the next president to stop this killing and bombing,” she said.

Musliha, 70, said: “If I sit at home and everyone sits at home, there will be no change, we can’t achieve what we want. We need to choose the right person.”

Afghans vote despite sporadic violence

KABUL - Millions of Afghans went to the polls on Thursday, defying Taliban threats of violence and sporadic attacks across the country to choose a president in the midst of a worsening war.

Two Taliban insurgents were killed in a gunbattle in the capital and rockets fell on several towns, mainly in the south and east. But the United Nations said there were also encouraging signs of high turnout in many areas.

"The vast majority of polling stations have been able to open and have received voting materials," said Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Kabul. "We are seeing queues forming at polling stations in the north, also in the capital, as well as, encouragingly, in the east."

President Hamid Karzai cast his ballot under tight security at a high school near his presidential palace in Kabul. He told reporters it would be "in the nation's interest" if the election was decided in a single round.

He faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Polls suggest Karzai may not get enough votes to avoid a second round run-off, likely in October. Preliminary results are not expected for at least two weeks.

The election is also a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.

Obama's envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in Kabul and said the voting he'd seen was "open and honest". "So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong," Holbrooke said.


As he spoke, two Taliban fighters were engaged in a shootout with Afghan forces in the capital. Abdullah Uruzgani, a police battalion commander, told Reuters the two were later killed. A Reuters team was allowed inside to film their bodies.

Attacks have increased in the run-up to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and a building siege inside the normally secure capital in the past week.

In a series of statements before the election, Taliban fighters claimed they had infiltrated the capital with 20 suicide bombers and would close all the country's roads.

Concern over turnout has especially focused on southern areas, the Taliban's stronghold and also the core of Karzai's support. The president's half brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, provincial council chief in the southern province of Kandahar, told Reuters people were turning out briskly in spite of threats.

"A rocket landed close to my house, killing a little boy and injuring his mother seriously," he said by telephone. "But despite all these warnings, people don't listen to the Taliban. Kandahar people are used to war."

Bill Gallery, senior program director for Democracy International, a group monitoring the poll, said some of its observers in the south were "surprised at how many people were turning out. It exceeded their expectations". But he added that it was too early to draw full conclusions about participation.

Many Afghans said attacks would not keep them from voting.

"The Afghan people are used to living under the worst circumstances of insecurity and fighting, why should they be afraid to come out and vote?" said Sayed Mustafa, a Kabul student, showing an ink-stained finger that proved he had voted.

In northern Baghlan province, Taliban guerrillas attacked a police post, killing a district police chief.

Rockets hit the cities of Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Ghazni and Kunduz, where two election observers were wounded at a polling station. In the eastern city of Gardez, a police official said two suicide bombers on motorcycles blew themselves up but caused no casualties.

More than 30,000 U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the size of the international force above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, could ask for more troops when he issues a report next week. "The situation is serious and we need to turn the momentum of the enemy, but we can do that," he told the BBC.

A new poll in the Washington Post found 51 percent of Americans believe the war is not worth fighting, and only a quarter favor sending more troops.

The Afghan government has requested international and domestic media not report violence on polling day, a ban that the United Nations says it has asked authorities to lift.

Karzai calls on Afghans to defy Taliban and vote

KABUL - President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to defy Taliban threats and vote, hours before polls opened in an election on Thursday that could prove the toughest test yet of his own mandate and his nation’s fragile democracy.
Nearly as much as it is a test for Karzai, the election is also a high political hurdle for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.

Streets in the Afghan capital were tense, police were out on round-the-clock shifts, and Karzai insisted the Taliban, stronger than at any time since they were toppled in 2001, would fail in their pledge to disrupt the country’s second-ever presidential vote.

“Enemies will do their best, but it won’t help,” he told reporters late on Wednesday.

“I hope that tomorrow our countrymen, millions of them, will come and vote for the country’s stability, for the country’s peace, for the country’s progress.”

Karzai himself faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

Polls, the most recent conducted more than a month ago, show Karzai winning by a wide margin, but not by enough to secure victory in a single round.

Should he fail to win more than 50 percent, Karzai would most likely face Abdullah in a run-off in October.

Perhaps greater than the threat at the ballot box is the threat on the battlefield from Taliban insurgents, who have vowed to disrupt the voting and ordered Afghans to stay home.

In a series of statements on Wednesday the Taliban said they had infiltrated 20 suicide bombers into Kabul and would close all the country’s roads, taking no responsibility for the deaths of anyone who defied them to go to the polls.

U.S. officials say there may be some violence, but they do not think it will reach the scale needed to wreck the vote.

Increased attacks

The extent of any violence is nearly impossible to predict. The tempo of attacks has clearly increased in the weeks leading to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and a building siege inside the normally secure capital.

Security in most of the country is still far better than it was in Iraq when several successful elections were held there. But the Taliban may be able to fatally damage the vote even without big attacks, if their threats keep people from voting.

More than 30,000 U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the size of the international force there above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.

The new troops have made bold advances into previously Taliban-held areas, but have also taken by far the worst casualties of the war. More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since March than in the entire period from 2001-04.

The Afghan government issued a “request” two days before the election that international and Afghan media refrain from publishing any information about violence in the country between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (0130-1530 GMT) on polling day.

The United Nations says it has asked the authorities to reconsider the measure. Afghan journalists said the ban, if enforced, could make the situation worse by depriving Afghans of credible information about the scope of any violence, opening the country up to the spread of unchecked rumours.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, said on a visit to the region expectations for the poll’s outcome needed to be realistic.

“The election is difficult to hold in a war-time country. And we’re not sure how many polling stations will be closed because of security. Taliban has said they’re going to close them all. But I don’t know how many they will succeed in closing,” he said.

“No election is perfect. Don’t expect a perfect election.”

Afghans go to polls under threat of Taliban violence

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Under the menacing threat of violence from the Taliban, Afghans headed to the polls on Thursday in the war-ravaged nation's second-ever national election.In parts of the capital Kabul, where recent calm was shattered by a series of bloody attacks leading up to election day, the streets were eerily empty early in the day, save extra security checkpoints. At midday, NATO's International Security Assistance Force reported "Kabul is calm."The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the voting, and the risk may have been too high for some Afghans to venture out to vote.The government ordered a ban on media coverage of incidents of violence in an effort to "ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."
Thousands of NATO and Afghan soldiers provided security at the polls and more than 30 observer groups -- domestic and international -- were on hand to monitor the voting.
But in other parts of Afghanistan that have been largely spared the daily drumbeat of car bombs, assassinations and whizzing rockets, voters lined up to cast their ballots.Pajhwok, an independent Afghan news agency, reported brisk turnout in western Herat province, which borders Iran.
In central Bamiyan province, where predominantly ethnic Hazaras suffered under Taliban rule, thousands of voters cast their ballots behind cardboard screens inside dust-caked tents. Police struggled to hold back and search the crowd and at one point, people pushed through, breaking off one of the gates to the polling center.
Organizers from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission said all 412 polling stations across Bamiyan will be open, whereas in neighboring Daikundi province to the south, 11 polling centers were closed because of security concerns. The southern provinces form the heartland of Taliban territory.A few other polling stations in eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces that did not open and others, including 100 in Ghor that opened without a security presence, Pajhwok reported.The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and in recent months has staged an increasingly bloody insurgency. Afghanistan observers and experts said a high turnout would help marginalize the radical Islamist group."We're at a moment of truth," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, an independent advisory and analysis organization.Incumbent President Hamid Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple and green striped robe, cast his vote shortly after the polls opened Thursday and had his finger stamped with indelible ink, a measure to thwart fraud."It's the second presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan and I'm sure this will be for peace, for progress and for the well-being of the Afghan people," he said afterward. "And I request the Afghan people to come out and vote so that through their vote, Afghanistan can be a more secure, more peaceful and a better country."Karzai's name appears on the ballot with 40 other candidates for president. His top rival is his former finance minister Abdullah Abdullah, who once served as a confidante of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance killed by al Qaeda. The other candidate who gathered steam in the campaign is former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated man who served as a World Bank analyst. Who are the candidates? How does the voting work? Read here »Karzai was named interim leader after the fall of the Taliban regime and won the 2004 election by a significant margin. His popularity, however, has waned in recent months as Afghanistan has been crippled by corruption and increasing bloodshed.Both Abdullah and Ghani hailed anti-corruption measures and government transparency as centerpieces of their campaign platforms.More than 3,000 candidates also are on the ballot vying for 420 provincial seats.Women's votes were seen as crucial. Under Taliban rule, women were denied equal rights and hurtled backward in time. In some areas, however, women voters were greatly outnumbered by men.Habiba Surobi, the female governor of Bamiyan, said one problem is that women who live in remote areas are still not aware of their rights."This is something to be concerned about," she said, adding that it was the responsibility of Afghanistan's women leaders to ensure better awareness and education.International donors are helping pay for Afghanistan's $223 million electoral undertaking. Richard Holbrooke, the top U.S. envoy in the region, acknowledged earlier this week that staging an election in the midst of war was tough, but expressed optimism that Thursday's vote would showcase Afghanistan's fledgling democracy.About 15 million Afghans are registered to vote. Earlier, officials had estimated that number as 17 million.