Afghan election opens amid fears of violence

Low voter turn-out feared as insurgents block roads and threaten suicide attacks

The landmark presidential election in Afghanistan opened today amid fears that the polls will be undermined by low turnout caused by violence and intimidation.

After eight years of war, it was hoped that the poll would give legitimacy to the fragile Afghan government, but the Taliban have shown that they still control much of the country.

Insurgents vowed to disrupt the ballot, and yesterday blocked the roads in and out of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, reducing traffic by 80 per cent despite a huge British military operation just outside the city.

Three gunmen stormed a bank in Kabul, while the Taliban warned that 20 suicide bombers were planning attacks in the capital.

The intimidation is focused on the southern Pashtun belt, which is bad news for President Hamid Karzai, who needs ethnic Pashtun votes to win a second term.

If he does not win outright in what is looking like an increasingly tight race, then there will be a presidential run-off between the two leading candidates. This second round will have massive security implications.

Habibullah Khan, the district governor of Nad-e-Ali, the most populated area in Helmand, said that most people in the district were unlikely to vote.

He said: "They are scared. The Taliban tell them they will cut off their heads, or their hands if they vote, and people do not want to take the risk."

"The Taliban have been warning people not to travel; not to go to work; not to open their shops on election day. They have laid mines on roads, they have threatened people and unfortunately this is likely to work."