Fifteen suicide bombers have infiltrated Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, according to U.S. military officials, threatening to disrupt Afghanistan's election Thursday and create widespread fear that could limit turnout.
That fear spiked at daybreak this morning, when a gun battle broke out between police and militants who had stormed a bank. One of the bank robbers blew himself up, and the other two were shot dead, according to Afghan defense officials.
Also on the eve of the election, at least six Afghans and three U.S. soldiers have been killed in militant attacks, officials said today.
Two troops were killed by gunfire in the south Wednesday, the U.S. military said, while a third was killed in an unspecified hostile attack.
The deaths bring the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan this month to 32, a pace that will likely break last month's record of 44 soldiers killed.
Fears of attacks in Kabul have driven people inside. In usually bustling markets, only a handful of people walked past shuttered shops today. Many Afghans who did go out say their family members urged them not to.
If fear depresses turnout significantly, the election's legitimacy could be questioned. Some Afghans interviewed in the last couple of days in and around Kabul say they will vote no matter the risks; others say traveling to a polling station is simply not worth it.
"The people should participate in the election," says 38-year-old Zabiullah, who, like many Afghans, only goes by one name. He was one of the few shoppers at a bakery in downtown Kabul. "People need to be brave."
But a group of Kabul residents interviewed a few feet from a suicide attack on British troops yesterday all said they would not vote.
"My father is injured in the hospital and my younger brother is missing -- what should I do? Look for him, or vote?" one asked. He declined to give his name.
A handful of Taliban attacks occurred across the country today, trying to disrupt tomorrow's election, officials said. A roadside bomb and a separate ambush killed three Afghan policemen, and a roadside bomb killed the provincial sub-governor, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
The information came from a private briefing given by the Afghan defense ministry to the head of all foreign troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to which ABC News was invited.
In the briefing, Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials identified the most likely targets, all high-profile buildings in Kabul, based on communication intercepts. A U.S. official said he believed five of the suicide bombers who had infiltrated Kabul had already been killed.
Anecdotally, fear is running higher than ever. Even some car dealership owners in Kabul decided to move some of their most valuable merchandise to secret locations, fearful of violence during and after the elections.
The Taliban have threatened anyone who votes -- sometimes with death, sometimes warning anyone with an ink-stained finger that their hands will be cut off for exhibiting proof that they voted. The threats are particularly high in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest. In some areas they control 90 percent of the countryside.
In order to try and limit the effect of violence and threats on turnout, Afghanistan's foreign ministry has asked reporters not to report on any violence while the polls are open.