Multiple blasts rock polling stations in the capital Kabul as people in Afghanistan go to polls in parliamentary elections overshadowed by assassination of candidates.
Witnesses on Saturday reported explosions at several polling centers, including a school in the north of the capital.
Officials said there were “fatalities and injuries” from the explosions which came after the Taliban warned voters to boycott the elections “to protect their lives.”
The blasts also came even as around 70,000 security forces have been deployed to protect polling centers across the war-torn country.
Polls opened in most Afghan regions at 7 a.m. local time (0230 GMT) and will close at 4 p.m., with nearly nine million people eligible to vote in 5,100 polling centers amid heavy security measures across the country.
About 2,450 candidates are competing for places in the 250-seat parliament, according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
Voting has started in polling centers in 32 Afghan provinces but the elections will not be held in Ghazni and Kandahar provinces due to security issues.
“Today, I speak to you as a citizen of this country and my request is that every Afghan woman and man should exercise their right to vote,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said during a visit to a polling station in the Afghan capital of Kabul to cast his own ballot.
“The election commission is fully prepared to hold the election in Kandahar in a week’s time,” he added.
Thousands of police officers and soldiers have been deployed across the central Asian country but already nine candidates have been assassinated and hundreds of people killed and wounded in election-related attacks.
Security fears forced the IEC to close more than 2,000 polling stations and cancelled the vote in 11 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.
The United Nations, which has been supporting the election process, has also urged Afghans to “use this opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote” and called for the election to take place in a safe and secure environment.
Taliban militants have issued a series of statements intimidating voters into not taking part in what they consider a foreign-imposed process and warned election centers may be attacked.
Afghan officials are concerned that violence will keep voters away from polling stations, particularly following the assassination of the police chief of Kandahar on Thursday, which led to the postponement of the elections in the southern province.
On October 18, at least three senior provincial officials in Kandahar were killed by one of their own guards during a meeting to discuss security ahead of the vote. The Taliban claimed the attack, saying their target was US General Scott Miller, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who was unharmed.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, toppling a Taliban regime in control of most of the country at the time.
In the eight years since Afghanistan last held parliamentary elections, a resurgent Taliban have carried out near-daily attacks on security forces, seizing large swathes of the countryside and threatening major cities. A Daesh affiliate has also launched a wave of bombings targeting the country’s Shia minority, killing hundreds. Both groups have threatened to attack anyone taking part in the vote.
Kabul blames the Taliban for the bulk of more than 8,000 deaths in Afghanistan since the start of 2018.