Violence Shakes Kabul on Afghan Election Eve

Afghan security forces are making their presence felt in Kabul after gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a bank in the capital on the eve of national elections.

Officials say the gunmen forced their way into a Pashtany bank branch, located about a kilometer from the presidential palace, early Wednesday.

The head of the Interior Ministry's anti-crime unit, General Abdul Jamil Junbish, says his forces killed three of the gunmen and recovered about 30 weapons.  Three policemen were wounded.

This violence comes on Afghanistan's Independence Day holiday and as election officials make last-minute preparations for Thursday's presidential and provincial elections.

Afghan and international military officials are increasingly worried about the impact insurgent attacks could have on potential voters.  Already, a Taliban spokesman has claimed responsibility for the bank attack, telling news agencies the incident is just one in a series of attacks planned for the eve of the election.

The Taliban previously said it would attack polling stations and retaliate against anyone who dared to vote.

At least 16 people were killed in attacks on Tuesday, with more scattered violence reported Wednesday.

In a move criticized by journalists (including the International Federation of Journalists and the Independent Journalist Association of Afghanistan), the Afghan government has asked domestic and foreign media not to report violent incidents on election day for fear it could keep voters from going to the polls.  Some Afghan journalists say they will not comply with the ban, saying it violates their constitutional rights to cover the news.

The Australian officer responsible for international efforts to provide election security said Tuesday Afghan police will be in and around the country's 6,500 polling stations while Afghan soldiers will guard an outer perimeter.  He said the International Security Assistance Force will be nearby to help if needed. 

Meanwhile, NATO announced it will halt offensive operations during the balloting.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging Afghans to vote despite the recent upsurge in violence.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces some 30 challengers in the August 20 poll.  Recent opinion surveys indicate he remains in the lead, but there are signs the race has tightened.  Candidates must win more than 50 percent of the total votes to avoid a run-off. 

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters

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