Gun battles, mine blasts and US air strikes on the day of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban election left 38 people dead today, including three police officers escorting freshly filled ballot boxes, Afghan officials said.
The three died in Uruzgan province, a Taliban stronghold where US forces earlier fought militants in a battle which reportedly left 25 rebels and one civilian dead.
In neighbouring Kandahar province, eight more police died when their vehicle hit a mine, another mine killed an Afghan soldier and security forces arrested two men carrying a hand grenade.
The violence did not affect actual voting in the presidential election, which went ahead without any major security problems, although rivals to interim leader Hamid Karzai claimed it was fraudulent.
Some 100,000 Afghan, US and Nato security forces were on duty for the vote, which remnants of the Taliban had threatened to attack.
Rebels opened fire on four pick-up trucks carrying ballot boxes from Chura to Tirin Kot, the capital of central Uruzgan province, as it passed through a mountainous area at about 5pm, an hour after polls closed, police chief Rozi Khan said.
“They fought for just a few minutes, then withdrew to the mountains,” Khan said.
Three policemen were killed and four others wounded, but the convoy was able to continue to Tirin Kot, where the US military or the United Nations are expected to collect the votes by helicopter for counting in the southern city of Kandahar.
The US military said one of its units encountered a group of some 60 militants before dawn Saturday near a bazaar in the Char Cheno district of Uruzgan, where sustained violence has hamstrung voter registration.
After a brief skirmish, the rebels retreated toward a compound where they were targeted with air strikes called in to support the American ground troops, military officials said.
Fire from an AC-130 gunship and two 2,000-pound bombs dropped from a bomber “destroyed the targets,” spokesman Major Mark McCann said.
No Americans were reported hurt and the military had no information on rebel casualties.
But Uruzgan Governor Jan Mohammed Khan said 25 militants travelling in three vehicles were killed. He also said one civilian was killed and three others wounded, all of them men.
McCann made no mention of any civilian casualties.
It was unclear whether the rebels had been planning an attack on the election.
The eight police officers died when their vehicle struck a mine near Shah Wali Kot, close to the border with Uruzgan, police deputy inspector-general Daoud Salehi said.
A soldier driving a vehicle carrying a militia commander died in Panjwayi district when his car hit a mine. The commander was injured, Panjwayi’s mayor said.
In Kandahar city, police said they arrested two men riding a motorcycle after a spot search found one carrying a hand grenade.