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Taliban Attack Near Kabul Kills Police, Civilians

POL-E ALAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- At least three Afghan police and two civilians have been killed in a brazen attack by Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers on government buildings near Kabul, officials said, 10 days before an election.

The attack, the latest in a series of assaults before the August 20 presidential poll, came after U.S. commanders said the war in Afghanistan had not reached a crisis point even though the Taliban had gained momentum.

Deen Mohammad Darwish, a spokesman for the governor of Logar Province, about an hour's drive south of the capital, Kabul, said one Taliban attacker was also killed along with the police and civilians. Witnesses said gun battles lasted several hours.

The Taliban last month vowed to disrupt the election, calling on Afghans to boycott the vote. There has been a spate of ambushes on candidates, campaign workers and election officials before and after that warning.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said six fighters wearing vests packed with explosives had attacked the governor's office, police headquarters and election offices in Pol-e Alam, 70 kilometers from Kabul.

A major highway linking Kabul to provinces in the southeast was closed because of the fighting.

The attack followed the brazen pattern of similar assaults in the eastern cities of Khost and Gardez last month.

Darwish said three Afghan soldiers were seriously wounded in a gun battle during which a vest worn by an insurgent exploded.

As Afghan forces battled to reclaim the police headquarters and governor's office, witnesses reported seeing at least one U.S. Apache attack helicopter fire on the compound.

A spokeswoman for U.S. and NATO-led forces in Kabul could not confirm if U.S. helicopters had fired any missiles. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said ISAF troops helped defuse explosives found in one building.

Abdul Rahim, an aid worker in an office next to the police building, said five police were killed and 26 people wounded. He said at least three of the attackers were dressed in burqas, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Afghan women.

Reuters reporters in the city heard at least three loud blasts and thick smoke poured from the police building.

'Things Will Get Worse'

With UN officials saying that violence and poor security had hampered election preparations in some areas, residents in Pol-e Alam feared it would deteriorate further.

"Things will only get worse with the election," shopkeeper Faizal Ahmad said. "We will have no security in the future."

President Hamid Karzai is the front-runner to retain power over a field of 35 challengers but poor security in the south, his traditional ethnic Pashtun power base, looms as a potential problem if it results in poor voter turnout, analysts have said.

Poor Pashtun turnout could mean no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, requiring a second-round runoff when challengers could form a coalition behind one of Karzai's main rivals, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.