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INTERVIEW-Afghan minister promises safe vote despite Taliban pressure

Source: Reuters - Wed, 26 Mar 2014 17:24 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Afghan minister vows to hold safe presidential vote

* Crucial election on April 5 to replace Karzai

* Taliban have threatened to derail voting process

By Hamid Shalizi and Maria Golovnina

KABUL, March 26 (Reuters) - Afghan Interior Minister Umer Daudzai, the man in charge of security during next week's presidential election, said on Wednesday the country was under pressure from an escalating Taliban insurgency but pledged to ensure a safe vote.

Afghanistan will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai on April 5 in a crucial election which is designed to mark the first democratic transfer of power in its history.

Kabul is on high alert ahead of the vote, which Taliban insurgents have promised to derail with a campaign of bombings and assassinations.

In a rare interview, Daudzai, a Karzai confidant and one of Afghanistan's most powerful men, told Reuters the government felt the pinch from the growing violence.

"As we move along and get closer to the election our enemies try to put pressure on us, to disrupt the election," he said.

"They have already declared that they would disrupt the election. But we are confident that they will not be able to derail the election ... There will be security, and people will come out and vote in a secure environment."

Karzai is barred from running for another term after 12 years in power but is widely expected to retain his influence through officials loyal to him.

On Tuesday, a squad of Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen stormed an election commission office in Kabul, further heightening tensions before the vote. Ten people were killed, including five attackers.

Last week, nine people including an election observer and a journalist with AFP news agency were killed in a brazen attack on a luxury hotel in the centre of the capital.

Afghanistan accused Pakistan's intelligence service of staging the hotel attack - a charge angrily denied by Islamabad.

Afghanistan has long had an uneasy relationship with its eastern neighbour, accusing it of harbouring Taliban militants and helping them stage attacks on Afghan soil.

Daudzai said Pakistan's ceasefire deal with Taliban insurgents on its side of the border had prompted the militants to switch their focus to Afghanistan and cross over into its territory to stage attacks ahead of the vote.

The Pakistani Taliban announced a one-month ceasefire, aimed at reviving peace talks, on March 1.

"From the day there was a ceasefire on that side, almost every night one or the other of our border posts has been attacked by people from the other side of the border," Daudzai said.

"They have declared they want to disrupt the election. The short-term goal is to disrupt the election, the long-term goal is to destabilise Afghanistan. They want Afghanistan to become insecure. But that's a dream that will never be fulfilled." (Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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