Police and military forces were on high alert Saturday to prevent attacks targeting next week's celebration of the Afghan new year, when President Hamid Karzai is to announce a plan for the gradual handover of security duties from NATO to local forces, the Interior Ministry said.
Authorities fear insurgents will strike March 21 to disrupt the holiday Nowruz, which marks the beginning of spring and the traditional New Year in Afghanistan, Iran and other countries of central Asia. The Taliban discouraged Afghans from celebrating Nowruz when they ruled the country in the 1990s because they deemed it un-Islamic.
There have been unconfirmed reports that suicide bombers from areas near the Pakistani border have been trying to infiltrate Kabul and other major cities for weeks. Many insurgent groups are based in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas along Afghanistan's eastern borders.
"There is no doubt that the enemies of the Afghan people are trying to disrupt these happy days," Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said Saturday.
But he said U.S.-led forces were ready to help out as all Afghan forces _ including police, army and the intelligence service _ work to prevent attacks.
Also Saturday, NATO said three of its service members were killed. Two died in a shooting involving a security guard in southern Afghanistan and another died in a roadside bombing in the east. They did not release the nationalities of the dead or any other details, according to standard practice. The deaths brought the number of coalition troops killed this month to 19 and 84 since the start of the year.
Bashary said that all police and army leaves had been canceled ahead of the holiday and that more than 13,000 security forces would be deployed in Kabul. Kabul hospitals and the city's ambulance service had also been placed on alert, he added.
Other major cities, such as Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, were also increasing security. Mazar-i-Sharif, site of a major Shiite shrine and focal point for the celebrations, was expecting thousands of visitors this year, including many from outside Afghanistan.
During last year's Nowruz celebrations, a series of bombings, including one suicide attack, killed 11 people in eastern Afghanistan. One day before, five coalition soldiers were killed in three attacks in the south.
There are worries the Taliban will try to stage spectacular attacks in the spring, in an effort to undermine people's faith in Karzai's often ineffectual administration as it slowly tries to assert control over the country. The U.S. and its international partners are preparing to start a gradual handover of administrative and security responsibilities to the Afghan government, a transition process that will be completed by the end of 2014.
Karzai is to announce during a Nowruz address the first six areas that will be handed over, and the U.S. is expected to start pulling out some of its forces in July.
Coalition forces are also preparing for what many officials have described as a bloody spring and summer as the Taliban try to retake some of the lands they lost since last summer_ mostly in the south. The Afghan fighting season traditionally starts in the spring, when insurgents finish harvesting their fields and many pour back into the country from safe havens in Pakistan.
AP writer Patrick Quinn contributed to this story from Kabul.