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Voter Registration Closes for Historic Afghanistan Elections - 2004-08-15

As voter registration closes for Afghanistan's first post-war elections, the country is still suffering from factional fighting between rival militia groups.

The United Nations said Sunday that over 9.9 million Afghans had registered to vote in the upcoming elections.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said that of those registered, close to 42 percent are women, despite the severe restriction of women's rights under Afghanistan's previous Taleban regime.

Afghans are slated to choose a president on October 9 and a parliament next April. While Sunday was officially the last day for registration, Mr. de Almeida e Silva said the election commission might decide to extend the deadline in some remote areas.

Reports of multiple registrations and underage registrants are not uncommon, but the United Nations has expressed satisfaction with the process.

However, the final days of registration coincided with fierce fighting in the western province of Herat among rival government-aligned militias.

Forces loyal to provincial Governor Ismail Khan clashed with rivals, and artillery fire was exchanged.

Reports of casualty figures differed, but one estimate said at least 21 persons had been killed since the fighting began Friday.

Mr. de Almeida e Silva said the clashes prompted demonstrations in the provincial capital, including a gathering of university students on Saturday.

"It brought together some 300 or so participants," he said. "They chanted slogans saying that the fighting should be stopped immediately and made calls for peace."

The U.N. spokesman said the factional fighting might be a reason so many Afghans are interested in voting in the elections.

"It's to participate in order to bring changes," he said. "People want to leave behind the years of violence, this very violence that you see in this fighting of factions, as we are witnessing in these last three days."

The Afghan government and its international partners have been seeking to disarm the militias, remnants of years of civil war, but the program has been hampered by delays on the part of some militia leaders.

Afghanistan also faces security problems from militants loyal to the former Taleban government and its allies, who have staged attacks in an effort to upset the election process.

Officials in the southeastern province of Kandahar, the former center of the ultra-religious Taleban movement, say an attack by Taleban loyalists Sunday killed at least six Afghan soldiers.

The Taleban have denounced the elections as an exercise to ensure U.S. domination of the country.