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Bold attacks raise security fears as Afghan election nears

KABUL — Violence erupted in two major cities in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, heightening security fears nearly two weeks before national elections that the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

Gunfire broke out late at night in a heavily fortified hotel in downtown Kabul, killing nine people, including four foreigners, and in Jalalabad a predawn raid left 10 policemen dead.

The gunfire in Kabul’s luxury Serena Hotel, which is frequented by foreigners, was heard about 9 p.m., police officials said. An hour later the gunfire had stopped.  Five Afghans -two men, two women and one child - and four foreigners -two men and two women - were killed, The Associated Press reported. 

All four gumen were killed by police, said Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told NBC News that the insurgent group was responsible, but his claim was not confirmed by police. Sediqqi could not confirm the attackers were Taliban, but said they were terrorists.

An American inside the Serena at the time, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told Stars and Stripes by phone during the attack that the hotel’s armed guards herded occupants into a secure location after shots rang out, reportedly in the hotel’s restaurant.

The hotel is a massively fortified structure in comparison with many of Kabul’s private buildings and it was unclear how the gunmen got their weapons through security, but Sediqqi said they apparently were some type of small pistols and easily hidden.

The Serena routinely hosts high-ranking foreign officials, diplomats, and journalists, especially now in the run-up to the election. Its parking lot is often crowded with United Nations vehicles, and it is generally considered one of the safest places in Kabul.

Its high profile, however, might have prompted a 2008 attack that left six people dead.

Earlier Thursday, insurgents stormed a police station and the provincial governor’s office before dawn in the eastern city of Jalalabad. In addition to the 10 police officers, the seven attackers also died in the five-hour gun battle, which began with near simultaneous explosions at the police station and the governor’s office and ended with street-by-street fighting, Nangarhar province police chief Fazal Ahmed Sherzad told Stars and Stripes.

Three attackers blew themselves up during the fighting, while the other four were killed by the security forces, he said.

Concern about security is mounting in Afghanistan ahead of the April 5 elections, which will mark the first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. and its allies ousted the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the elections, calling them a “plot of the invaders” whose outcome has already been determined by foreign intelligence agencies.

Among the dead police officers were the station chief and the deputy commander of the rapid-reaction force that responded to the attack, Sherzad said. A student was also killed in the crossfire, and 14 officers were wounded.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on social media and in messages to news outlets, saying they had targeted the police station before moving on to other targets.

At least 17 civilians died in a suicide bombing in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday. No one claimed responsibility for that attack, and the exact target of the blast was unclear.

Neither the Faryab nor Jalalabad attacks were explicitly aimed at election-related targets, but Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, said the recent violence is worrisome because even if the Taliban fail to prevent the election, fears over security could keep some Afghans at home and result in a skewed election tally.

“It is worrying because the violence is much more than expected,” he said.

“I don’t think the Taliban have the capability to disrupt the election completely, but if the level of violence continues to rise in the south and the east, then that could disenfranchise a lot of Pashtuns and undermine the legitimacy of the elections.”

The eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan have been plagued by guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks for years, but the Taliban have promised to increase their campaign of violence before and during the elections.

“We have given orders to all our Mujahideen to use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections,” the Taliban said in a statement released online on March 10.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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