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Bid to disrupt Afghan vote 'fails'

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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The U.S.-led coalition said Afghan and coalition forces had "stymied" militant designs to disrupt voting in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Sunday.

"Enemy efforts to disrupt the elections have proven to be insignificant well into the voting period, with no reports of effective attacks against polling stations in southeastern Afghanistan," a statement from the Coalition Press Information Center in Kabul declared.

U.S. President George W. Bush praised the balloting as "a major step forward" for the war-ravaged country.

Sporadic attacks killed a French peacekeeper and wounded a U.S. soldier and two Afghan troops as Afghans cast ballots for a national assembly and local lawmakers in 34 provinces.

Security was stiff at the 6,100 polling stations across the country in light of pre-election violence and voter intimidation by remnants of the former ruling Taliban and other militants trying to derail the vote.

National police, Afghan National Army and coalition forces "detained three suspected enemy fighters in Wardak and Ghazni provinces; discovered and destroyed more than six improvised explosive devices in Khost, Kunar and Paktika provinces; fought off direct enemy attacks in Khost, Nangarhar and Paktika provinces; and discovered a weapons cache near the forward operating base at Salerno," a coalition statement said.

Polls closed at 4 p.m. (11:30 a.m. GMT), but people who remained in line were allowed to cast ballots. Local forces were providing "election security until the last Afghan votes," the statement said.

Bush, who ordered U.S. forces into Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, congratulated Afghans on a successful vote.

He called the elections "a major step forward in Afghanistan's development as a democratic state governed by the rule of law."

"We commend the tremendous progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years, and we pledge the full support of the United States as Afghanistan acts to meet the new challenges ahead," he said.

Nevertheless, the bloodshed -- which has claimed the lives of U.S. soldiers and Afghan forces in the runup to the election -- continued Sunday, with a U.S. soldier and two Afghan troops wounded by suspected Taliban militants.

The attack occurred about 16 kilometers (10 miles) north of a U.S. base outside the city of Khost, said Tech. Sgt. Marina Evans, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

A few hours before, a French soldier was killed and two others injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in the town of Spin Boldak, on the border with Pakistan, according to France's Defense Ministry.

It was the third French service member killed since combat in Afghanistan began in October 2001. The other two were killed in October in a Kabul traffic accident.

And a U.S. forward operating base at Baylough, near a polling station in the traditional Taliban stronghold of the Deh Chopan Valley came under mortar fire Sunday.

Local police and U.S. military officials said five mortar rounds were fired from about five kilometers (three miles) away. None of the mortars struck the base and no one was injured, authorities said.

And a rocket struck a warehouse used by UNOCA -- the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programs relating to Afghanistan -- on the edge of Kabul, according to a U.N. spokesman in Kabul. The rocket caused a small fire, and one staff member sustained minor injuries, but the spokesman said the attack would not affect the elections.

In a demonstration of how much the country has changed since the Taliban were toppled nearly four years ago, many of the early voters at the Eid Gah mosque in Kabul were women, who, under the Taliban, had been barred from participating in national political life.

'Unethical practices'

At the Deh Chopan Valley polling station, however, no women were among the voters who lined up outside as early as 6 a.m. to cast their ballots. While two women are among the region's candidates, neither visited the area because of concerns regarding Taliban attacks.

In October's presidential election, only 34 people voted at the Deh Chopan polling station. But as of about 1 p.m. Sunday, 810 villagers had cast ballots. The valley has about 50,000 residents, several thousand of whom are registered to vote. Voters were treated to a free lunch of lamb and rice.

Inside the polling station, confusion was rampant. Many voters did not know whom to support and had not met the regional candidates.

There are no schools in the area, and most voters cannot read. Some were confused about having their fingers inked. They turned out to vote, however, in a show of support for President Hamid Karzai's government.

Some men said they voted for the female candidates. Others said they voted for another candidate, reportedly a former Taliban commander, simply because they recognized his picture.

As he cast his ballot, Karzai said if the majority of those elected to parliament are in opposition to him, "it's the decision of the Afghan people. Very good. As a matter of fact, I want a good, strong parliament."

Journalist Tom Coghlan -- at the Batrak polling station east of Kabul where Kuchi nomads cast ballots -- saw various unethical practices there.

He said teenage girls were allowed to vote, election workers filled out ballot papers for women and prompted them to vote for particular candidates, and people there claimed voters had been bussed in by a particular candidate.

CNN Correspondent Ryan Chilcote and journalist Tom Coghlan contributed to this report

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