By Joshua Partlow and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 2009 9:44 AM
KABUL, Aug. 19 -- Three gunmen with grenades stormed a bank in downtown Kabul on Wednesday morning, creating a standoff with Afghan soldiers and police that ended with the killing of the gunmen, according to officials and residents.
The violence on the day before Afghanistan's presidential election raised alarm across the capital that the radical Islamist Taliban movement or other fighters were intent on carrying out further attacks to disrupt the voting. In the days before the election, the Taliban has exploded car bombs in front of U.S. military and NATO bases, as well as launched rockets at the presidential palace.
The early morning standoff at the bank began when three men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and other explosives entered a Pashtani Bank branch in the capital's old city, witnesses said. Police soon surrounded the building and cordoned off the neighborhood, and gunfire ensued at the bank. Police said that the three gunmen were killed. Many bank windows were shattered after the standoff.
Mir Agha, 32, a painter drinking tea near the bank at the time of the attack, said one of the gunmen was strapped with an explosive suicide vest, but it was unclear whether he detonated it.
Another resident, Hamidullah, said the attack sealed his decision to stay away from the polls on Thursday.
"I would never vote; nor will my family," he said. "I don't think that anyone will go out to vote."
President Hamid Karzai's government is desperate to avoid such sentiments and has asked the local media not to cover violence on Election Day in an attempt to avoid scaring people away from the polls.
The streets were quieter than normal, and many shops were closed Wednesday, the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from British rule. Many Afghans stayed home to avoid the risk of violence.