Afghans vote in landmark poll, undeterred by threats

Afghans vote in landmark poll, undeterred by threats
Afghan residents wishing to vote line up underneath a billboard showing images of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and of deceased Afghan figures Ahmad Shah Massoud and Burhandin Rabani outside a polling station in Mazar-i-Sharif.

KABUL/KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Voting was largely peaceful in Afghanistan's presidential election on Saturday, with only isolated attacks on polling stations as a country racked by decades of chaos embarked on its first ever democratic transfer of power.

A roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded two others in the southern city of Qalat as they were returning from a polling station, while four voters were wounded in an explosion at a voting centre in the southeastern province of Logar.

There were no reports of more serious attacks so far on an election that Taliban insurgents had vowed to derail, branding it a US-backed sham.

The United States, having spent $90 billion (S$113 billion) on aid and training for Afghan security forces since it helped vanquish the Taliban in 2001, could point to its success promoting democracy as a major achievement toward leaving Afghanistan as a more stable country.

But the abiding Taliban threat, and uncertainty over neighbour Pakistan's intentions, leaves the worry that Afghanistan could enter a fresh cycle of violence, and once again become a haven for groups like al Qaeda, after the bulk of US troops leave by the year-end.

Most people expect the election will be better run than the chaotic 2009 vote that handed the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, a second term amid massive fraud and ballot stuffing.

The stronger the next president's mandate, the less vulnerable Afghanistan could be to instability. Even if the election is less flawed this time, it could take months - perhaps even until October - for a winner to be declared at a time when the country desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as foreign troops prepare to leave.

Nearly 3,500 members of the US-led coalition force have been killed in Afghanistan since deployment over a decade ago.

KABUL SEALED OFF

About 12 million are eligible to vote in the election, and there are eight candidates, with former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani the favourites.

Karzai is barred by the constitution from running for the presidency again. But, after 12 years in power, he is widely expected to retain influence through politicians loyal to him.

The Taliban warned civilians ahead of the election they would be targeted if they try to vote, and dozens died in a spate of attacks in the preceding weeks.

A veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior correspondent of the same news agency was wounded on Friday when a policeman opened fire on the two women in eastern Afghanistan as they reported on preparations for the poll.

More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed, guarding against attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, was sealed off by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.

In the city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, the mood was tense. Vehicles were not allowed to move on the roads and checkpoints were set up at every intersection.

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