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Canadians brace for violence in Afghanistan

Two Canadian soldiers were injured by an explosion while on patrol around Kabul last night as warlords and religious radicals target foreign troops and other symbols of authority in the days before Afghanistan's historic parliamentary elections.

Security forces have been bracing for a surge of violence around Sunday's hotly contested vote, which will elect the country's first legislature since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Military commanders expect the worst of the bloodshed to happen this weekend, but last night a team of four soldiers got a taste of what may lay ahead when a homemade bomb rocked their Coyote armoured vehicle on a dirt road in the southern outskirts of Kabul.

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"Was this expected? Yeah. We're expecting to see this peak as the Taliban and other groups try to disrupt the elections," said Lieutenant-Colonel Lowell Thomas, commanding officer of the Canadian troops in Kabul.

The soldiers were not seriously injured, and their eight-wheeled vehicle was able to drive away from the blast, which blew a hole nearly three metres in diameter in the road. An armoured military ambulance later roared into Camp Julien with its red light flashing and pulled up to the door of a field hospital, but the men who emerged all seemed to be walking under their own strength, suffering only cuts and bruises. Their names have not been released.

The attack happened after 7 p.m. local time, as dusk was falling on an unlit stretch of road between a village and the edge of Kabul. The convoy of two vehicles from the Royal Canadian Dragoons was on a regular reconnaissance patrol roughly five kilometres away from the Canadian base, separated from the camp by a small mountain range, when something exploded. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the blast, Col. Thomas said, but it appeared to be an improvised explosive device of the kind that has become a favoured weapon of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six people were killed in attacks across the country this week, and a female political candidate was injured, as armed groups try to influence the outcome of the vote.

Analysts say there are two main sources of the violence -- Islamic extremists and warlords. Remnants of the Taliban, a fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, continue to fight a long-running insurgency campaign against the new government. Taliban spokesmen have promised not to target voters on election day, but they have also warned they intend to thwart the process by attacking the mechanisms of the vote.

The warlords, leaders of private armies who helped international forces defeat the Taliban in 2001, have also been grappling for power with more urgency in recent months. Many of them are standing for election, disavowing their bloody histories, but some have been disqualified for failing to cut their ties with illegal armed groups, causing anger and threats of violence.

At a press briefing this week with officials from the Joint Electoral Management Body, a United Nations-backed group responsible for organizing the elections, a local reporter speaking in Pashtun expressed concern about an election rule that allows a runner-up to replace a victorious candidate if the winner happens to die.

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"Many democracies give the next biggest vote-getter the seat in that situation," said Peter Erben, chief electoral officer. "Some have speculated that this could lead to a security issue for those who are elected. I hope this will not be the case."

Those threats have put the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, along with the rest of the International Security Assistance Force and the local Afghan forces, on heightened alert. The most significant risks are expected from tomorrow to Monday, Col. Thomas said, but tensions will also rise when initial results of the elections are announced in October.

"Anything moving ballot boxes is a target. Any counting station is a target. After the election, the candidates become targets," Col. Thomas said.

Thinking about these potential threats is what keeps Sergeant Jack Durnford awake while his reconnaissance team conducts night patrols around the city. It's monotonous work, driving the bumpy, rutted routes around Kabul, showing a military presence in hopes of maintaining calm. But Sgt. Durnford has lost two friends since the Canadian forces arrived here in 2001, and his eyes rarely stop scanning the darkened roads.

A couple of weeks ago, Sgt. Durnford's team noticed two bodies lying beside the road and a crowd gathered. It seemed like a traffic accident, he said, until he examined the scene with binoculars and noticed the empty bullet casings on the ground. Somebody threw the bodies into the back of a Toyota sedan and drove away, he said; he later learned that he'd witnessed the aftermath of the summary execution of a Taliban leader and his nephew.

"My main concern is the day of the election," Sgt. Durnford said. "We'll probably see more of this play out."

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