msnbc.com news services
updated 9/29/2004 8:10:22 AM ET 2004-09-29T12:10:22

U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are stepping up efforts to improve security before next month’s election, focusing on the south and southeast where militants have been most active, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.

But members of the 18,000-strong force will not be stationed at any of the 25,000 polling booths on Oct. 9 when Afghans take part in their first ever direct presidential ballot.

Presidential candidates and non-governmental organizations have complained that the international community has failed to do enough to provide a safe environment for the election.

The majority of the 18 contenders want the poll postponed until security improves because remnants of the ousted Taliban militia and allies including al-Qaida are seeking to disrupt the vote.

In the latest violence in the war-torn country, Taliban militants crept up to an Afghan government office under cover of darkness early Wednesday and launched a gunbattle that left four attackers and three Afghan troops dead, police said.

Elsewhere, an explosion killed a motorcyclist in Khost province in what an Afghan commander suggested was a botched suicide attack.

Gen. Fazel Mohammed Sahel said the man appeared to be a suicide bomber, but that he had no idea why the explosion, that injured a farmer riding a passing tractor, occurred on the open road or what kind of mission the dead man might have been on.

Quick reaction forces
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said coalition forces would provide quick reaction forces in the event of violence at the upcoming elections and support the fledgling Afghan National Army.

Afghanistan’s Joint Electoral Management Body would hire private security to monitor polling stations, Afghan police would throw a cordon around them and the Afghan National Army would in turn surround them, he told a news briefing.

“In Zabul province, Uruzgan, places in the south and southeast where we’ve had problems in the past, are areas where we’ll certainly focus on enhanced security,” he added.

Highlighting the problems in the region, Wednesday's attack targeted the mayor’s office in Khaki Afghan, a district of southeastern Zabul province, deputy police chief Jailani Khan said.

In four hours of fighting, four Taliban were killed and two more captured along with their weapons, Khan said. Three Afghan soldiers died and two were wounded.

“We are holding the bodies of the four dead Taliban,” Khan said. Reports from the scene suggested there were also Arabs among the assailants, he said, but had no further details.

Ahead of elections, the Afghan authorities have been provided with 60,000 sets of riot gear to allow police to control crowds without having to resort to lethal fire after at least seven people were killed in unrest in the western city of Herat earlier this month.

Praise for Pakistan
Nelson praised Pakistan for bolstering security along its frontier in southwestern Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have been critical of Islamabad for failing to do enough to halt the flow of Taliban militants from its soil into Afghanistan, although Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, says it is doing all it can.

On Monday, coalition troops near Shkin, close to the Pakistan border, came under fire from foreign militants they suspect were from the Taliban.

As the militants retreated toward Pakistan with a view to fleeing there, U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan contacted the Pakistani authorities who blocked the gunmen’s exit, helping coalition forces round up 15 militants.

“This would never have happened a year ago, two years ago,” Nelson said.

Taliban guerrillas and their allies have vowed to disrupt the election, and more than 1,000 people have died in militant-related attacks since August last year.

They view the poll as a sham coordinated by the United States, and have vowed to rid Afghanistan of foreign troops. In addition to coalition forces, around 8,000 NATO-led peacekeepers are positioned mainly in Kabul.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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