KABUL — Heavily armed militants attacked the office of Afghanistan’s independent election commission on Tuesday, detonating suicide vests and engaging in a fierce gun battle with security forces less than two weeks before a landmark presidential election.
At least nine people were killed in the assault, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said two suicide bombers attacked the office in the morning. The security forces responded, and fighting erupted with the surviving attackers.
The dead included five attackers. Two members of the Afghan security forces and two civilians — a candidate for the provincial council and an election commission staffer — also died in the fighting, Seddiqi said. He cautioned that the death toll could rise as several more civilians were taken to the hospital in critical condition.
The attack, which came less than two weeks before elections in which voters will pick a successor to outgoing President Hamid Karzai, is the latest in a series of high-profile Taliban actions aimed at undermining the ballot and instilling a sense of insecurity among voters. The guerrillas, who have vowed to disrupt the election, have repeatedly attacked Afghan campaign workers and election officials as well as places frequented by foreign aid workers and election monitors.
The fighting occurred near the ruined Darul Aman palace, which was destroyed by artillery fire in the 1990s when rival warlords fought for control of the capital before they were ousted by the Taliban.
At the time of the attack, workers in the office were preparing voting cards for the election, said Hashmat Stanakzai, spokesman for the Kabul Police Department.
“The attackers ... carried out an explosion at the gate and then entered the office, which is related to the election commission,” Stanakzai said, adding that the attack began about 11:45 a.m.
For hours later in the afternoon, heavy gunfire and small explosions rocked the neighborhood, which is also home to presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. He was away at a campaign event in another province.
The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said a number of suicide attackers struck the office, and he denounced the coming vote as a “fake election.”
United Nations officials condemned the killing of civilians during the attack.
“The (electoral commission) and its civilian workers are conducting a public service so that Afghans can vote — it is reprehensible that they have been deliberately targeted,” deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom said in a statement.
Also on Tuesday morning, Taliban insurgents also attacked a bank in the Asadabad, the capital city of Kunar province.
Kunar police chief Abdul Habib Sayedkhail said one suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate, while a second assailant entered the bank and opened fire. When it was over both insurgents were dead along with four government employees.