Afghans braved sporadic rocket and bomb attacks to vote for a new parliament on Saturday, with the war-weary nation on full security alert after the Taliban threatened to derail the high-stakes election.
At least 2 people were killed after polling stations opened and UN and US officials warned that security and fraud were major concerns for the second parliamentary vote since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.
Insurgents fired rockets in several cities including Kabul and set off bombs at a polling station and alongside a convoy carrying the governor of Kandahar.
Voting got off to a slow start in what is seen as a key step in a US-led process to bring democracy to the impoverished and conservative Muslim country ravaged by 30 years of war and insurgency.
Scores of men and women queued patiently to vote at separate polling stations, dressed in traditional clothes and burqas, determined to cast their ballot despite the security headaches and fears of retribution.
Tens of thousands of Afghan and US-led NATO forces are involved in a massive security operation to guard against attack after the Taliban urged a boycott and warned it would attack anyone involved in the vote.
As he cast his ballot, President Hamid Karzai called on people to vote to take their country “forward to a better future”.
“We do hope there will be a high voter turnout, that people will come out and vote for the person, man or woman, of their choice without pressure.”
The ballot is a test of the US-led campaign against a resurgent Taliban and the commitment by Karzai — whose own re-election last year was mired in massive fraud — to crack down on rampant corruption.
More than 2,500 candidates are contesting 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga. Among them are 406 women contesting 68 seats reserved for them under legislation designed to better their rights.
The United Nations and United States have conceded the vote will be flawed, but highlighted the fact that it was taking place at all and said they expected it to be better than last year’s presidential vote.
“We knew security was a problem, we have to put it into context and hoping that it will not be a bad day, but security is a concern,” UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told Al Jazeera television.
Insurgents fired a rocket near NATO headquarters in Kabul shortly before polls opened at 0230 GMT, but no casualties or damage were reported, a spokeswoman for the alliance said.
The governor of Kandahar province, said he survived a roadside bomb attack while visiting polling centres in the volatile region.
“The blast caused no casualties but it shattered my vehicle’s windows,” Toryalai Wesa said.
A rocket slammed into a house killing two people in the eastern province of Nangarhar and a bomb attack at a polling centre in the eastern city of Khost — not far from the Pakistan border — wounded three people, officials said.
On the eve of the poll, Taliban militants kidnapped at least one candidate and were blamed for snatching another 18 election workers.
In a Tajik neighbourhood of Kabul about 50 people waited quietly outside one polling station although turnout appeared to be slow in areas dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group who dominate the insurgency.
While much campaigning has been personality driven, those who did come to vote early said lawlessness and corruption were their main concerns.
Voters have to to dip their finger in indelible ink in an effort to minimise fraud but Election Complaints Commission official Ahmad Zia Rafat said some cases of the ink coming off had been registered and other complaints lodged.
The vote is taking place at 5,816 polling stations, but more than 1,000 will stay shut because of security concerns, particularly in Taliban strongholds.
Around 115,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been deployed to protect the poll, while NATO has said its entire contingent is on standby.
After polling stations close at 4pm (1130 GMT), the laborious process of counting will begin but final results are not due until October 31.