updated 10/5/2004 3:34:29 AM ET 2004-10-05T07:34:29

Afghan soldiers and police overran a hideout where a large group of suspected Taliban were preparing to disrupt upcoming presidential elections, prompting a three-hour firefight that left seven insurgents dead, officials said Tuesday.

The fighting broke out at about 3 p.m. Monday in a mountainous area of southern Uruzgan province, hours after rebels had attacked a police checkpoint, said Matiullah Khan, the provincial chief of police.

Police in pursuit followed the rebels into the mountains, where they came across dozens of other Taliban fighters. Seven rebels were killed, and five others arrested. The Afghan forces suffered no casualties.

Khan said officials believe the men were plotting to launch attacks ahead of landmark Oct. 9 presidential elections, though he gave no specifics on what they might have been up to.

“We have increased our security all over the province because of the election,” said Khan. “We don’t want any of the Taliban to be in a position to attack polling sites.”

Khan said authorities found five missiles, as well as automatic weapons, after a search of the hideout. The remaining rebels fled deeper into the mountains.

The Taliban has kept up a steady drumbeat of violence ahead of the vote, with attacks on election workers, frequent rocket assaults on U.S. bases, and occasional ambushes.

The threat of violence has kept many of the 18 candidates, especially interim President Hamid Karzai, largely off the campaign trail. Karzai survived an assassination attempt in September when Taliban rebels fired a rocket at his helicopter on one of his few forays out of the capital. His vice president was targeted later, surviving a bomb attack on his convoy in northeastern Afghanistan.

The rebels have not yet been able to launch the high-impact assault many had feared in the days leading up to the vote. Officials say they are confident the vote, the first time Afghans will be asked to directly choose their president, will go forward.

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