Saturday, September 18, 2010

Afghan Vote Marked by Light Turnout and Attacks

KABUL, Afghanistan - Hundreds of polling stations either closed or came under attack and at least 10 civilians were killed in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday, even as officials insisted the vote was generally safe nationwide.

The city of Kandahar seemed particularly hard hit. Explosions were heard every half hour through the morning, and 31 had occurred by mid-morning including rockets fired by insurgents, according to a security official there, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa toured polling places to encourage voters to turn out, but his own convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, slightly damaging his armored car but hurting no one.

Voter turnout was extremely low in Marja, the Helmand Province battleground, as bullets flew over the polling station near the district center, and insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade into the main United States Marine base here. No one was injured in the rocket blast, which landed close to an ammunition supply area and destroyed the wooden platform of a tent housing several Marines. Marine commanders responded with three Hellfire missiles shot from Reaper drones, which they say killed at least two insurgents who had launched the rocket a quarter mile from the base.

Nationwide, authorities could only confirm that 92 percent of the planned 5,816 polling centers had opened as planned, and no word had been heard from the other 8 percent, raising concerns that security conditions had forced them to close, according to the Independent Election Commission. The commission had previously canceled about 1,000 polling centers because the authorities could not secure them.

The 8 percent of non-reporting polling places were in nine provinces in the northeast, northwest, east and south, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the chairman of the I.E.C., said at a news conference. He added, however, that every province had at least 50 percent of its polling places open.

Halfway through the voting day, even in a safe neighborhood of downtown Kabul, only 150 men and 130 women had cast their ballots at the Naderia High School. But there was little violence in the capital, and late in the day, long lines began to form at some of the centers around the city.

Still, Abdul Hadi, an observer for an incumbent, Anar Kally Hunaryaar, complained that observers at the high school greatly outnumbered voters. "Right here there are almost zero voters, and a thousand observers, it's ridiculous," he said.

Outside the capital, in the rural Guldara District in Kabul Province, village polling places were lightly attended. And in one spot, only four women voted, other than official election observers. In the more populated district center, however, 650 people, including 150 women, had voted, and others were streaming in an hour before polls closed at 4 p.m.

In Kandahar, the Taliban papered the city with nightletters on the eve of the election, warning people not to vote in "Americanized elections" and that anyone doing so would be a target. The letters, signed by the Taliban's military commander for Kandahar, Al Haj Ahmad Sayid, gave two phone numbers, one for information about the warning, and another for complaints.

In Dand District just outside the city, polling places set aside for women had not received a single voter, although several hundred men had cast ballots. In the center of the city, another women's polling center had attracted only 23 voters in the morning.

Kandahar is the traditional stronghold of the Taliban where NATO and Afghan forces have stepped up military operations recently.

Those who did vote in Kandahar were nervous. "I am so scared to come to the polling station," said Shafiqa, 49, "my family insisted I not come, but I have to because this is my country and I want to use my vote for someone I like."

In Kunduz Province, northern Afghanistan, 16 civilians were injured during election-related violence, some while casting their votes and others in their homes when rockets were fired into them by insurgents, Mohammed Omar, the governor of Kunduz, said at a news conference. In addition, according to hospital officials there, five people were killed and three wounded in rocket, mortar and roadside bomb attacks in the province.

In eastern Nangarhar Province, bombs were hidden in a mosque that was to be used as a polling place but exploded with out harming anyone, officials said. However, in Chapayar town, two people were killed by a rocket that hit the road where they were walking.

The governor of Baghlan Province in the north, Munshi Abdul Majid, said a NATO air strike accidentally killed three members of a village defense team during a firefight with Taliban, eight of whom were also killed. A spokesman for NATO said the force so far had no knowledge of the incident.
A statement posted on a pro-Taliban website claimed the insurgents had attacked more than 100 polling centers.

However, the Afghan monitoring organization, the Free and Fair Elections Foundation, said generally the elections were safe. "Though there were numerous attacks, none were severe enough to disrupt voting on a wide scale," F.E.F.A. said in a statement.

There were numerous accounts of fraud.

In the first reported instance of fraud, a woman who worked for the I.E.C. in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, was arrested with 1,500 fake voter registration cards, according to Dawood Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Helmand governor's office. He said the employee, whom he did not name, was the daughter of a female candidate, Habiba Sadat.

In Paktika Province, a man was arrested for trying to use 1,600 fake voter registration cards on behalf of a parliamentary candidate, Rahmatullah Wahid Yar, according to Rohullah Samoon, the spokesman for the governor.

At a polling center at the Ghazi Khan High School in Kunduz city, journalists and election observers watched as I.E.C. officials and supporters of some of the candidates locked the doors for two hours and filled out ballots themselves.

F.E.F.A. also said that in nearly 3,000 polling centers - about half of the total - its monitors discovered that the ink used to mark voters' fingers to prevent repeated voting was easily washed off, even though it was supposed to have been indelible.

Contributing reporting were Sangar Rahimi and Sharifullah Sahak in Kabul, Elisabeth Bumiller in Marja, Taimoor Shah in Kandahar and Afghan employees of The New York Times in Helmand, Khost, Nangarhar and Kunar provinces.

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