KABUL (Reuters) -- Gunmen have stormed a bank building in the Afghan capital and battled police for hours on the eve of a cliffhanger election that the Taliban has vowed to disrupt.
The brazen early-morning raid was the third major attack in Kabul in five days, shattering the calm in a capital that had been secure for months.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the raid was carried out by five gunmen, some wearing suicide bomb vests. Police sources said three fighters and three policemen were killed during the four-hour siege, which now appeared to be over.
Afghan security forces took reporters into a nearby compound and showed them the bullet-riddled bodies of three fighters killed in the clash.
In a statement on a Taliban website, (alemara.org) the Islamist group said 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital. Another statement said the militants were closing roads across the country to disrupt the poll, and warned voters to stay away.
"From today onwards until the end of tomorrow, all main and secondary roads will be blocked for traffic and the mujahedin will bear no responsibility for whoever gets hurt," it said.
Explosions and gunfire could be heard from the scene of the early-morning clash, just south of the presidential palace compound in the center of the capital.
The Afghan government has ordered foreign and domestic media to impose a blackout on coverage of violence during the August 20 vote, saying it did not want Afghans to be frightened away.
Police beat journalists and bystanders with rifle butts to keep them away from the scene of the August 19 raid.
Although Afghan police said the raid could have been an ordinary bank robbery, it follows a pattern the Taliban has employed in towns throughout the south recently -- sending fighters with bomb vests to seize buildings.
It also came a day after a suicide car bomber killed eight people in the capital, the second such strike in four days. Such attacks had been common in the south, but had not taken place in comparatively secure Kabul for months.
Polls show President Hamid Karzai leading ahead of the election, but likely to fall just short of the outright majority needed to avoid an October runoff against his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Western diplomats say the outcome of the first round -- once seen as Karzai's to lose -- is now too close to call.
Alliance With Militia Chiefs
If fear of violence causes poor turnout, it could jeopardize the legitimacy of the election altogether. Violence is likely to have its greatest impact on turnout in the south, which is also the heartland of Karzai's support, making a runoff more likely.
Karzai has won the endorsements of a number of the former militia chieftains whose armed factions once held sway in the country, raising alarm among Western donors that warlords could return to carve up power in a new Karzai administration.
Abdullah has run a surprisingly strong campaign, with well-attended rallies across the country, and has been polling about 25 percent to about 45 percent for Karzai.
Nevertheless, Abdullah still draws most of his support from the north and would face an uphill struggle to win the presidency even if he forces a second round.
The election is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama's tactic of sending thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan to reverse Taliban advances. More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops arrived this year, raising the total foreign force above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.
"I think one way you can view the violence is an effort by the Taliban to intimidate people from actually voting," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on August 18.
"And, you know, there are problems with this election, as there are with any election, but we still believe that it is the right of the people of Afghanistan to pick their own leaders. And we are encouraging them to come out and vote."