Taliban militants attacked the main Afghan election commission's headquarters in Kabul on Saturday, the latest in a series of audacious assaults threatening to scare voters away just a week before Afghans go to the polls.
It was the third attack in Kabul in five days claimed by the Taliban. The Islamic militant movement has promised a campaign of violence to disrupt the April 5 elections to choose the country's next president and provincial council members.
The five attackers disguised themselves as women, wearing the all-encompassing burqa to sneak unnoticed into a building that overlooked the heavily fortified Independent Election Commission's headquarters on the eastern edge of the capital, officials said.
They never breached the compound — which is walled off and guarded by a series of watchtowers and checkpoints — but two warehouses were set on fire as the attackers barraged the complex with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan confirmed that a neighbouring base it uses was hit by small-arms fire too. It said all U.N. staff members were accounted for and safe.
Afghan police killed all five militants after a four-hour standoff, deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi said. Two policemen were wounded in the firefight after security forces surrounded the building.
None of the dozens of employees and other people who had been hiding inside the election commission headquarters was injured, Salangi said.
It was the second attack on electoral offices this week. Gunmen Tuesday killed four people in an assault on another IEC office in Kabul on Tuesday. A foreign guest house came under attack Friday. The Taliban claimed responsibility for all three assaults.
The United Nations expressed confidence that the Taliban would fail to disrupt next week's elections, and several Afghans insisted they would cast their ballots despite a Taliban warning to stay home.
"The U.N. remains undeterred in carrying out its work and I am confident that the IEC is as equally determined," the acting U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, said in a statement. "More importantly, I am sure that ordinary Afghans remain undeterred in their desire to have their say on the future direction of their country."
Mohammad Fared, a 23-year-old Kabul resident, was just as defiant.
"No one can stop us from casting our vote on election day. We will participate in the election," he said.
While the recent attacks have resulted in relatively few casualties, they have had a big psychological impact and raised concerns about the Afghan security forces' abilities as most international forces withdraw by the end of this year.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, offered a statement reassuring Afghans it was ready for voting day. It vowed that the elections "will be held in a secure environment, far from any threat."
Kabul International Airport, which is located near the IEC compound, was shut for more than two hours and flights were diverted during the standoff because of fears militants could target planes coming in to land. The airport later reopened.
Noor Mohammed Noor, a spokesman for the election commission, said security already had been increased around the compound because an attack had been widely expected. He said the IEC leadership was away on official business when the assault began.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack but described what would have been a much more ambitious assault. He said a suicide bomber and gunmen had stormed the IEC compound while the IEC and election observers, including foreigners, were holding a meeting.
The Taliban frequently exaggerate in their statements and Noor denied such a meeting. A news conference had been planned on the compound to discuss election security, but that was cancelled, he said.
Noor said there were no ballots or other important election materials inside the warehouses that caught fire.
Eight candidates are running in next week's elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who is not running for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. Karzai cannot seek a third term under the country's constitution.
Militants have stepped up attacks on foreigners in the Afghan capital, suggesting that they are shifting tactics to focus on civilian targets that aren't as heavily protected as military and government installations.
Gunmen with pistols and ammunition hidden in their shoes killed nine people, including two Afghan children, after slipping through security at a luxury hotel in Kabul on March 20.
A Swedish journalist was shot to death on the street in a relatively affluent area earlier this month, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.