Kabul: Insurgents worked to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential election Saturday, with a series of blasts reported across the country as voters headed to the polls and troops flooded the streets of the capital.
The vote marks the culmination of a bloody election campaign that is seen as a two-horse race between President Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive.
The Taliban, who unleashed a string of bombings during the two-month campaign, in recent days issued repeated warnings they intend to attack polling centres. At least 15 people were wounded in the southern city of Kandahar when a bomb went off at a polling station about two hours after voting began, a hospital director told AFP, and officials across the country reported several small explosions at other election sites. "Peace is the first desire of our people," Ghani said after casting his vote at a high school in Kabul.
"Our roadmap (for peace) is ready, I want the people to give us permission and legitimacy so that we pursue peace." Wary authorities placed an uneasy Kabul under partial lockdown, flooding streets with troops and banning trucks from entering the city in an effort to stop would-be suicide bombers attacking the electoral process. One voter at a polling station in a Kabul high school said it was important to cast a ballot.
"I know there are security threats but bombs and attacks have become part of our everyday lives," 55-year-old Mohiuddin, who only gave one name, told AFP. "I am not afraid, we have to vote if we want to bring changes to our lives." The capital's traffic, often gridlocked, dropped to a trickle as schools and offices closed for the day and as many people chose to stay off the roads.
Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many have lost any hope that after 18 years of war any leader can unify the fractious country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnating economy or bolster security. Abdullah and Ghani both claimed victory in the 2014 election -- a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it led to a constitutional crisis and forced then-US president Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.
Sunawbar Mirzae, 23, said she chose to brave the polls because she valued her right to vote. "The only request I have from the election commission is that they ensure the transparency of the election because lots of people have lost their trust," she told AFP. Voting in Afghanistan's fourth presidential election began at 7:00 am (0230 GMT) at some 5,000 polling centres across the country. Authorities had initially planned to open hundreds more but were unable to owing to the abysmal security situation.
Campaigning was hampered by violence from the first day, when Ghani's running mate was targeted in a bomb-and-gun attack that left at least 20 dead. Bloody attacks have continued to rock Afghanistan, including a Taliban bombing at a Ghani rally last week that killed at least 26 people in the central province of Parwan near Kabul. The interior ministry says 72,000 forces will help to secure polling stations.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said: "Any acts of violence against the electoral process, including attacks directed at polling centres, polling staff and voters, are unacceptable." Election officials say this will be the cleanest election yet, with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers to ensure the vote is fair.
Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is "disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of an equal playing field and fraud" and many Afghans say they have no intention of voting, citing fraud and security fears. Saturday's poll was initially slated to take place in April, but was twice delayed because election workers were ill-prepared, and the US was leading a push to forge a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. That deal has been scuppered for now after US President Donald Trump pulled out. Polls close at 3:00 pm (1030 GMT).