Alleged Taliban Leaders Arrested in Afghanistan

Suspected Taliban (search) militants gunned down an Afghan working on a U.S.-funded electoral project, officials said Sunday in the first killing of a worker linked to landmark legislative polls scheduled for September.

Authorities, meanwhile, revealed the names of 2,884 Afghans hoping to contest the parliamentary elections — the country's next key step toward democracy after a quarter-century of war.

Among those who have enrolled to participate in the polls are former warlords, at least two leaders of the ousted Taliban regime and President Hamid Karzai's (search) main rival in presidential elections last year, Yunus Qanooni.

In a separate case, security forces arrested two alleged Taliban leaders, while fighting between suspected rebels and Afghan soldiers near the main north-south highway in southern Afghanistan left at least one insurgent dead, officials said Sunday. Six other suspected Taliban rebels were captured in Saturday's fighting in Zabul (search) province, said Afghan army commander Gen. Muslim Amid.

Intelligence officials arrested the two Taliban leaders as they were driving in western Farah province on Saturday, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zaher Azimi said.

One leader was identified as Mullah Abdul Rahim — a deputy for a key Taliban commander said to be close to the militia's fugitive leader, Mullah Omar, Azimi said. The other is regional Taliban leader Haji Sultan, he said.

The Taliban and other insurgents have stepped up attacks following a winter lull in fighting. Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces have hit back hard, killing more than 200 rebels since March, according to Afghan and American officials.

Election law permits any Afghan to participate as long as they do not have a criminal record and have severed any ties to armed groups.

The slain election worker was part of a project educating villagers on how to cast their vote in Uruzgan province's Tirin Kot district. He worked for the Afghan Civil Society Forum, said Susanne Schmeidl, an adviser to the national organization.

The project is partially funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, agency spokesman Rick Marshall said.

Suspected Taliban rebels surrounded a village in the district Friday and shot the election worker as he came out of a mosque, Schmeidl said. The victim's cousin also was shot, but his condition was not immediately known, she said.

Friday's killing was the first of someone working on the September elections, said a spokesman for the election commission, Sultan Ahmad Baheen.

At least 13 election workers were killed ahead of October's presidential polls, and there are fears that the September ballot also could be violent.

Beside the candidates registered for the legislative elections, another 3,186 people have signed up to participate in elections for new provincial assemblies, said Richard Atwood, chief of operations for the joint U.N.-Afghan election commission.

Those lists include 588 women, he said. Females were banned from all public life under the hard-line Taliban movement, which was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

At least a quarter of all seats in the national and provincial assemblies have been reserved for women. Enough have registered for the national legislature, but there is a shortage for the provincial votes and five seats in the assemblies will be left vacant, Atwood said.

The legislative elections were initially scheduled for June last year, but were delayed because of slow preparations and efforts to disarm warlords and militia commanders who the United Nations feared would intimidate voters.

Atwood said that lists of candidates have been displayed at election offices around the country and people have until Thursday to formally challenge a candidate's right to run. An independent committee will rule on the challenges and a final list of approved candidates will be published July 12.