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Taliban Recruit Young Fighters As Attacks Rise Ahead Of Afghan Vote

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Taliban insurgents intent on disrupting a run-off in the Afghan presidential election have begun recruiting fighters from radical Islamic schools, and ramped up their campaign of violence, officials and sources say.

The number of weekly attacks rose by around 10 percent to more than 350 incidents - including suicide attacks, gun-battles and roadside bombs - in the final week of May, according to a Western security firm.

Unlike the first round of voting which took place in April when much of the mountainous country was still covered with snow, millions of Afghans will head to the polls this time at the height of the Taliban fighting season.

The first round was praised as an unexpected success after the Taliban failed to cause major trouble, but the security picture looks more challenging ahead of the June 14 run-off.

'The intelligence information we have is that dozens of madrasas and Taliban training centers inside Quetta (in Pakistan) have been closed and many young men sent into Kandahar and others southern provinces to disrupt the election,' said Dawa Khan Minapal, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor.

'They (Taliban) have already started a campaign of suicide and roadside bombings to scare people away from voting.'

Afghanistan habitually accuses neighboring Pakistan of sheltering insurgents and not doing enough to weed out militants from its lawless areas straddling the Afghan border.

The Afghan Taliban's spring offensive officially kicked off in mid-May, with violence on the rise across the country.

An intelligence official told Reuters the offensive targeted remote areas of Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul provinces to instill an atmosphere of fear and discourage people from voting.

'We have enough fighters and men to stand against the election,' said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. 'We have warned people not to take part in the vote because this is an American process, or face consequences.'

More than 350,000 security forces were deployed for the first round, and rings of checkpoints and roadblocks around the capital, Kabul, may well have thwarted Taliban plans to hit voters and polling stations.

Despite the dangers they faced at polling stations, nearly 60 percent of the 12 million people eligible to vote turned out in the first round.

No one claimed a clear majority in the first round. Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Soviet resistance fighter, finished top with 45 percent, with Ashraf Ghani second with 32 percent.

The election takes place as foreign troops continue to trickle out of Afghanistan after more than a decade of war.

With more than 300,000 Afghan forces again due to provide security, officials have vowed to ensure a safe vote.

'The Taliban movement and activities have no doubt increased this time and it is designed to disrupt the elections,' said Sayeed Waqef Shah, the 205 Army Corps commander for southern Afghanistan.

'But we have already planned a big operations to hit them back in order to pave the way for a peaceful vote.'