Gunmen shot dead two aides of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on the eve of the official election campaign Saturday, officials said, highlighting the security threat surrounding the April poll.
The attack came as the country prepares for its first ever democratic transfer of power, with the April 5 election viewed as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security force as foreign troops prepare to exit the country.
"I can confirm that armed men killed Dr. Hamdard who was to lead our election campaign team in Herat, along with another team member in Herat city this evening," said Sayed Fazel Sangcharaki, a spokesman for Abdullah.
Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, a police spokesman in the western city of Herat, confirmed the incident.
"Unfortunately two people, namely Ahmad Hamdard and Shujahideen were killed in the fourth district of Herat city this evening. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on them in the middle of street," he said.
The police spokesman only gave one name for the second victim.
'No claim of responsibility'No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. But a source close to Abdullah who did not wish to be named told AFP: "We had received some threats in the past week, and two suspects were detained three days ago near our election campaign office in the city.
"We had also informed the security forces that there may be more possible threats, but unfortunately despite some security measures taken by us and police there, two main members of our election team were killed this evening."
The source did not elaborate on who was behind the threats.
Abdullah spokesman Sangcharaki said Hamdard had worked with Abdullah during the last presidential campaign in 2009, and lamented the lack of security provided by the government.
"This incident at the beginning of the election campaign is a bad sign as either the security forces are incapable of providing security for the election campaign or they do not take their job seriously," he said.
Sangcharaki added that President Hamid Karzai had called Abdullah to offer his condolences, assuring him that an investigation into the attack would be carried out.
Taliban insurgents have threatened to target the campaign, and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge with little support from the dwindling number of NATO troops.
The interior ministry hopes to open 6,431 of the 6,845 polling centres, although fears of insurgent violence could keep turnout low.
Only about one-third of registered voters cast their ballots last time -- significantly lower than previous elections -- and the turnout may decline further.
Abdullah, a suave opposition leader who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election, is seen as a favourite this time around, experts say.
He was a member of Burhanuddin Rabbani's government before the austere Taliban era, which ended in 2001, and was also a close aide to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia.
A qualified eye surgeon, he was born in Kabul to an ethnic Pashtun father from Kandahar and a Tajik mother.
Afghanistan's election campaign kicks off on Sunday, with 11 candidates vying to succeed Karzai as the country enters an uncertain new era without the aid of NATO combat troops to fight the Taliban.
A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of US soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the two-month campaign.
Karzai was expected to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) late last year, which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December.
But he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations -- plunging relations with the US, Afghanistan's key donor, to a fresh low.
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