KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide today, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to vote in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power.
Amid tight security, men in traditional tunics and loose trousers, and women clad in the all-encompassing burqas arrived at polling centers more than an hour before they opened in Kabul and elsewhere.
Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani marked his ballot live on television then urged all Afghans to vote as he launched the nationwide elections for a new president and provincial councils.
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
"I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote," she said. "I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election."
Militants have vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centers and election workers, and recent high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul are clearly designed to show they are perfectly capable of doing so.
On Friday, a veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and an AP reporter was wounded when an Afghan police officer opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
A unit commander named Naqibullah walked up to the car with the journalists, yelled "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - and opened fire on them in the back seat with his AK-47. The officer then surrendered and was arrested.
Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an internationally acclaimed German photographer, was killed instantly, while Kathy Gannon, an AP correspondent who for many years was the news organization's Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot twice and later underwent surgery. She was reported as being in stable condition.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility for the attack.
In a memo to AP staff, AP president Gary Pruitt remembered Niedringhaus as "spirited, intrepid and fearless, with a raucous laugh that we will always remember."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed his deep sadness over Niedringhaus' death and the wounding of Gannon.
"These two AP journalists had gone to Khost province to prepare reports about the presidential and provincial council elections," a statement from Karzai's office quoted him as saying. It added that Karzai instructed the interior minister and the Khost governor to assist the AP in every way possible.
Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces fanned out to protect polling stations and voters. On Friday evening, mobile phone messaging services stopped working in the capital, Kabul, in what appeared to be a security measure by authorities to prevent militants from using messages for attacks.
If the turnout is high and the Afghans are able to hold a successful election, that could undermine the Taliban's appeal by showing democracy can indeed work.
With Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, Afghans will choose a new president from a field of eight candidates, with three of them widely considered the main contenders. As international combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of the few successes in Karzai's tenure.
Three men are considered top contenders in the race - a major shift from past elections dominated by Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. That has presented Afghans with their first presidential vote in which the outcome is uncertain.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West between the front-runners - Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014 - which Karzai has refused to do. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.
None is expected to get a majority needed to secure a win outright, so a runoff between the top two vote getters is widely expected.
"The election excitement is being felt all over the place," said Aimal Jan Ghafoori, who worked at a voter registration center in the southern city of Kandahar. "It's really good to see this change. I hope this change helps in changing the fate of our country soon enough."
About the journalists
Anja Niedringhaus: Joined the AP in 2002, and while based in Geneva worked throughout the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, she was part of the AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, among many journalistic honors. In 2006-07, she studied at Harvard University under a Nieman Fellowship.
Kathy Gannon: A Canadian journalist based in Islamabad, has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the AP since the mid 1980s. A former Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, she is the author of a book on the country, I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan. She also was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation in 2002.