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By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban threatened to attack next month’s presidential election in Afghanistan, calling on its followers “to use all force” in targeting poll workers and political activists and to disrupt balloting.

“We once again call on all of our countrymen to keep away from electoral offices, voting booths, rallies and campaigns so that, may God forbid, their lives are not put into danger,” read a statement released Monday by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban likes to be called. “If anyone still persists on participating, then they are solely responsible (for) any loss in the future.”

The rambling statement underscored the threat of unrest as Afghans prepare to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who is barred by law from seeking a third term. If successful, the April 5 election would mark the first peaceful, democratic transfer of political power in Afghanistan’s history.

Although the threat was not a surprise, it was the first time that the militant organization called directly for violence to upset the election. During the 2009 election, which was also marred by fraud and ballot-stuffing, militants attacked and killed poll workers and forcefully intimidated voters, sometimes slicing off their fingers.

This campaign has already seen attacks against partisans and election officials. In September, two Taliban gunmen killed the head of the Independent Election Commission in Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan.

On Feb. 1, the day before campaigning officially began, two aides to presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah were shot and killed by unknown gunmen in the usually peaceful western city of Herat.

Abdullah, who finished second in the balloting to Karzai in 2009, is seen as one of the front-runners, along with former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. Karzai has said he would not try to influence the outcome of the race, although he reportedly urged his brother, businessman Abdul Qayum Karzai, to end his long-shot presidential bid to avoid the appearance of nepotism.

Abdul Qayum Karzai dropped out of the race last week and threw his support to Zalmai Rassoul, a polished former foreign minister who is believed to be the current president’s favored candidate.

U.S. officials are trying to avoid any appearance of meddling in the campaign after the State Department was accused in 2009 of backing Karzai’s opponents. All the presidential contenders have said they would sign a security agreement allowing some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, something Karzai has declined to do.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

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