Afghanistan's presidential candidates held rallies in Kabul today at the start of a campaign to elect Hamid Karzai's successor, as the killing of a frontrunner's aides highlighted the security threat to the poll.
Gunmen shot dead two members of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah's team in the western city of Herat yesterday, dealing an early blow to hopes of a peaceful campaign as the country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power.
The April 5 election is seen as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces as foreign troops prepare to exit the country, while the future of US troops in the country beyond 2014 is set to dominate the agenda.
In the capital today thousands of people, mostly men, gathered in giant wedding halls where candidates delivered speeches and called on war-weary Afghans to vote for them.
Abdullah, who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election, conveyed his condolences to the families of his slain aides and outlined his priorities as "security in the far villages of Afghanistan, fighting corruption, (and) enforcing rule of law".
He said the signing of a bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December, was essential to safeguarding the country's future.
"Afghanistan is in a place, in a position that needs the continuation of international cooperation and help," Abdullah said.
"Inshallah (God willing), with the signing of this agreement, the problems...will be solved." Earlier, Abdullah's rival Ashraf Ghani, a 64-year-old academic, told one packed hall: "Reforms will begin with us: myself, Mr Dostum and Mr Danish."
He was referring to his running mates, the former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Hazara tribal chieftain Sarwar Danish.
Security was tight at the rallies, which were guarded by the Afghan national army.
But the killing of Abdullah's aides weighed heavily on some people's minds.