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Afghanistan starts registering voters for 2009 elections amid daunting security challenges

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan began registering voters Monday for next year's presidential polls, an election likely to be the most dangerous and challenging since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

The Islamist militant movement, which has regained control of large swathes of the country, said it will not participate - and warned other Afghans not to.

Still, officials hope to register millions of new voters for the fall 2009 polls, said Zekria Barakzai, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission.

President Hamid Karzai is seeking a second term, and elections will also be held for 34 provincial assemblies.

Violence is likely to disrupt the process from the start, particularly in Afghanistan's south and east, where the militants are strongest and travel is difficult.

Violence across the country is up about 30 percent this year compared with 2007. More U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year than in any other year since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Already, some voter registration equipment has not been able to reach remote district centers in central Ghazni province, where the Taliban have growing sway. Authorities may use helicopters to transport the equipment, Barakzai said.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said Afghans should not "waste their time" by registering or going to vote.

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