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Gunmen Kill Two Aid Workers in Afghanistan

Gunmen fired on a car carrying two Afghans from a German relief agency in a former Taliban (search) stronghold, officials said Wednesday, killing them both in another setback to stuttering efforts to bring assistance to long-suffering Afghans.

The U.S. military forecast more attacks on civilians — possibly including a major strike in the capital — as tension and violence continue to mount in the run-up to landmark October elections.

On Wednesday, Afghanistan's powerful defense minister, Mohammed Fahim (search), backed a rival to President Hamid Karzai (search) in the elections, and insisted he would not use violence to try to hang on to office.

Karzai last week dropped Fahim, a militia leader who also serves as deputy head-of-state, from his ticket for the Oct. 9 presidential vote. The surprise move split Karzai's Cabinet and put NATO troops in Kabul on alert for any reaction from Fahim's troops.

In his first public reaction, Fahim said the decision was a "mistake" that had alienated many of the militia leaders who helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban in late 2001. But he insisted that the power struggle would be peaceful and said he was supporting Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, one of 22 candidates running against the U.S.-backed incumbent.

The aid workers who were killed Tuesday were returning from work on a project run by the Malteser aid agency in Zurmat district of Paktia, 75 miles south of Kabul, when shots were fired at their car from a passing vehicle.

Mohammed Idrees Sadiq died at the scene, while the other, 19-year-old Emal Abdul Samad, died after being flown to a U.S. military hospital at Bagram, north of Kabul, the group said.

The German group said it was "shocked" and suspended its activities in the region until further notice.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack.

But civilians have been increasingly targeted in a wave of violence that has left more than 700 people dead in Afghanistan this year, including 24 aid workers killed in attacks blamed mainly on Taliban militants.

Five members of Medecins Sans Frontieres (search), including three Europeans, were shot dead in northwestern Afghanistan on June 2. The medical relief group announced last week it was withdrawing from Afghanistan.

An Irish relief group also pulled out citing poor security, and other agencies have restricted their activities in areas previously viewed as safe.

Ingo Radtke, the head of the Malteser's foreign operations, said the agency was "shocked by this terrible act and very concerned about the security situation, which is increasingly tense also because of the approaching elections."

The U.S. military has insisted that the decision by Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, was not justified by the security situation. Yet it warned anew on Wednesday that attacks on soft targets would continue in the run-up to the presidential vote.

American commanders say militants are turning away from punishing confrontations with American forces and resorting to terrorist tactics. A bomb hit a vehicle carrying a mayor and a judge in central Afghanistan on Sunday, missing the officials but killing three of the judge's children, a local militia commander said.

Still, dozens of insurgents were reportedly killed in fierce fighting with Afghan troops and U.S. warplanes near the Pakistani border on Monday. Two Afghan soldiers also died.

Spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said earlier Wednesday that a major attack on civilian targets in Kabul was also possible. "We're going to do everything we can to stop them, but that may happen."

The Malteser agency was working with the United Nations (search) on vocational training programs and other projects for former refugees in Paktia and shared an office with the world body, the U.N. spokesman said.

The agency, which has been working in Afghanistan since 2002, said it currently has 20 international and 250 local employees in the country, working in seven provinces.