Suspected Taliban storm central Kabul bank, surrounded by police

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Kabul, Aug.19 (ANI): At least three gunmen, all reported to be members of the Taliban, stormed a central Kabul bank on Wednesday morning, and are currently surrounded by police.

A web site-W A Today-confirmed a short while ago that police have entered the building and were engaged in a gun battle with the attackers. It also said that dozens of security forces and intelligence agents have gathered in the area.

This morning's attack came as the Afghan capital was converted into a virtual fortress, being placed under tight security ahead of Thursday's presidential and provincial council elections. The increased security was necessitated because of a Taliban suicide bombing on Tuesday that killed 10 people, and a rocket attack on the presidential palace.

Interior ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said the three bank attackers were "robbers or thieves" and played down a Taliban claim that it was an insurgent attack.

"We don't know whether these are Taliban or insurgents because when they entered the bank, they must have intended to steal," Bashary was quoted, as saying.

"As they got into the bank, since we have very tight security in Kabul, police were able to get to the area in seconds and they (the gunmen) are surrounded by police," Bashary added.

"The situation is under control," he said. He did not comment on any casualties for the police.

The area is close to a bazaar and about 1.5 km south of the city centre, which was quiet with many businesses closed for a public holiday.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahed, claimed that four of the militants were in the building in a standoff with police that had left several dead.

They were among around 20 Taliban who had entered the city and were waiting orders to attack, he told AFP by telephone.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's 17 million voters go to the polls on Thursday to choose a president for only the second time in its history.

The Taliban have threatened to directly attack the polling stations and warned voters not to cast their ballots.

The threats to sabotage the election have raised concerns that voter turnout could be low, compromising the legitimacy of the 223 million dollars exercise in democracy.

The government on Tuesday appealed for an Afghan and international media blackout on reporting any attacks Thursday "in view of the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people".

Earlier, the Afghan government appealed for a local and international media blackout on reporting extremist attacks during this week's elections in a bid to maximise voter turnout.

Taliban insurgents have escalated threats to derail the elections, warning people not to vote and thereby make themselves a victim of attacks.

Dozens of extra foreign journalists have poured into the country in order to help cover the elections, which mark the second time in history that Afghans will elect a president. (ANI)

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