As election nears, Taliban attack Afghanistan offices

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Suicide bombers dressed as women broke into a private home on Saturday and began firing rocket-propelled grenades at their target next door: the headquarters of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the latest insurgent assault on this country's closely watched presidential vote.

The attackers died but there were no other reports of fatalities and two police officers were wounded in the assault, which lasted for more than five hours, officials said.

Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility in what has become an all too familiar occurrence in Afghanistan's capital one week before a pivotal election to choose President Hamid Karzai's successor.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the polling, describing it as an American-sponsored plot, and in recent days have succeeded in sowing fear if not delaying the casting of ballots on April 5. The election headquarters were also attacked last week, leaving five people dead.

On Friday, five Taliban insurgents struck a guest house run by a San Rafael, Calif.-based charity organization called Roots of Peace, beginning a gun battle with police and private security guards that left at least one person dead, an Afghan child.

Last week Taliban gunmen managed to get past normally stiff security at Kabul's luxury Serena Hotel, killing nine people including a prominent Afghan journalist, his wife and two young children.

Afghan, United Nations and U.S. officials have said the election will go on as planned, amid heavy security, but it was unclear how many Afghans were growing shy of casting their ballots given Taliban threats to directly target anyone who participates.

"The U.N. remains undeterred in carrying out its work and I am confident that the IEC is as equally determined," Nicholas Haysom, the ranking U.N. official in Afghanistan, said in a statement. "More importantly, I am sure that ordinary Afghans remain undeterred in their desire to have their say on the future direction of their country."

Saturday's attack began around 12:30 when five insurgents in burqas, the body-length garment Muslim women wear for modesty, broke into a private home about 400 yards from the election commission headquarters. One suicide bomber detonated his explosives at the entrance to the house while the others stormed the gate, said Hashmat Stanikzai, a Kabul police spokesman.

The insurgents then started firing on the compound with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, said Mohammad Ayob Salangi, the deputy interior minister. Two rockets directly struck the compound, officials said, although the attackers did not attempt to gain access to the election offices.

Police responded to the attack and killed the remaining four insurgents, Mr. Stanikzai said. Election workers holed up inside the compound but escaped unharmed. The owner of the four-story house, Haji Muhibullah, said that he began receiving threats about two months ago but that his requests for security were ignored.

Usually, an Afghan election -- a $100 million, Western-funded exercise -- draws foreigners to Kabul like flies to honey, with incoming flights full of consultants, international monitors, diplomats and journalists.

Not this time. Now, it is the flights out that are full, and the incoming planes are half empty. With the possible exception of journalists, foreigners have been leaving Afghanistan like never before during an election period after a series of attacks on foreign targets and the commission running the vote.

Even before the attack Saturday, many international election monitors had either drastically curtailed their activities or made plans to evacuate their foreign employees, potentially raising serious questions about the validity of the election.

The National Democratic Institute, a mainstay of previous Afghan elections, sent many of its foreign monitors, including Americans, home after a recent attack on the Serena Hotel, where they were staying. Some staff members remain here.

The International Republican Institute, which has helped monitor previous Afghan elections, has not been involved in this one.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said that another major monitor, Democracy International, had decided to cease its activities altogether. But a Democracy International official said the group had merely reduced its presence because of security concerns.

"The report that we are pulling out our staff and are not observing the election is inaccurate," said the official, Jed Ober, director of programs. "We currently have a core team of six experts managing a team of 12 long-term observers."

The New York Times contributed.

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