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Taliban ambush Afghan presidential security team; four wounded

Date
An Afghan election commission worker cuts open seals to a  ballot box.

An Afghan election commission worker cuts open seals to a ballot box. Photo: AFP

Kabul: Dozens of armed insurgents have attacked a convoy carrying a presidential security team in south-eastern Afghanistan, sparking a gun battle in which four guards were wounded, an official said.

The militants ambushed the convoy as it travelled through the volatile south-eastern Paktika province before a planned visit by President Hamid Karzai to Urgun district, where a devastating suicide attack killed 41 people on Tuesday.

Thursday's attack underlines the fragile security situation Afghanistan faces as the dispute about last month's presidential election run-off continues and as NATO progressively withdraws its 50,000 remaining combat troops, leaving local forces to battle a resilient Taliban insurgency. Kabul airport came under attack early on Thursday morning.

Afghan security forces take cover during clashes with Taliban fighters in Kabul.

Afghan security forces take cover during clashes with Taliban fighters in Kabul. Photo: AP

"The security team was travelling to Urgun district to prepare for the President's visit there," presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said.  "When they were ambushed, they fought back and called in for air and ground support, that were quickly deployed, repelling the assailants.''

The convoy pushed ahead despite the attack, Mr Faizi said, facing two more ambushes by insurgents on the way, but reached its destination without sustaining any further casualties.

A security source in the region said four vehicles of Mr Karzai's security convoy were also damaged by rocket fire.

The main highway connecting Kabul to Afghanistan's southern regions is often the sight of insurgent ambushes. It was not clear how Thursday's ambush had affected Mr Karzai's trip to the region, with Mr Faizi insisting he will visit soon.

Afghan election workers on Thursday began auditing the votes cast in last month's presidential election run-off, monitored by US and UN observers.

The audit of almost 8 million ballots cast in the June 14 run-off was part of a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to ease a dispute between the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, that had threatened to fracture Afghanistan's government.

Dr Abdullah and Dr Ghani also agreed to enact broad changes to Afghanistan's system of government.

But first the audit must determine who will be Afghanistan's next president. It is a huge undertaking that it is expected to take anywhere from three to six weeks and, officials cautioned, will inevitably run into snags along the way.

On Thursday, election workers and international observers went through only a tiny fraction of the votes cast at roughly 22,000 polling stations across Afghanistan. They began in the early afternoon, following a final round of meetings between the campaigns, US and UN officials and the leadership of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission.

Mr  Karzai, who had set the inauguration date of his successor for August 2, has stated that he wants the audit done as quickly as possible.

US and European officials agree, and they say a new president would ideally be in office before NATO countries meet in Wales in early September.

AFP, New York Times

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