Afghan ballot counting set to begin

Ballots from Afghanistan's first direct presidential election have poured into collection centres across the country, brought by donkey, road and helicopter.

    Turnout for the election was said to be high

    With counting due to begin on Wednesday, several rivals of

    frontrunner President Hamid Karzai have abandoned a boycott of

    Saturday's poll over what they said were fraud and

    irregularities.

    Another rival, a powerful general, was in Kabul to discuss his

    position with intermediaries.

    Karzai's chief rival, Yunis Qanuni,

    withdrew a boycott call on Monday, issued after suspicions were raised regarding

    illegal multiple voting

    .

    The Afghan-UN Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) is

    setting up a panel to investigate.

    Another main candidate, Uzbek general Abd al-Rashid Dustum, 

    met US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an

    influential behind-the-scenes dealmaker on Karzai's behalf.

    Poll foul-up

    US President George Bush, facing his own election

    battle next month, has hailed the Afghan vote as a foreign

    policy success and hopes it can be mirrored in war-torn Iraq.

    However, Afghans believe Khalilzad's interventions are because

    Washington wants to avoid a foul-up in these polls before the US

    election on 2 November.

    US-backed Karzai is favourite to
    win the poll 

    Agreement by Dustum to recognise the election, joining

    Qanuni and Hazara leader Muhammad Muhaqiq, would signal the

    collapse of the boycott that had undermined a vote in which

    millions of Afghans turned out despite threats of Taliban

    attacks.

    The impoverished, Islamic nation has been torn by war for

    more than a quarter of a century and has not held any form of election

    since the late 1960s. It has never directly chosen a leader.

    Karzai, a member of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -

    the Pashtun - was picked by the US to head a transitional government

    after the Taliban was ousted by US-led forces

    in late

    2001.

    An exit poll conducted by the Washington-based

    International Republican Institute, a US thinktank

    associated with Bush's Republican party, showed Karzai heading

    for a landslide.

    Nato forces

    With more than 12,000 survey responses recorded, Karzai had

    more than 50% of the vote and enough to avoid a run-off with

    second-placed Qanuni.

     

    The US wants Europe to commit
    more troops to Afghanistan

    The full count is likely to take about three weeks because

    of difficulties in transporting ballot boxes to counting

    centres.

    UN sources in Kandahar, once the bastion of the Taliban

    that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, said counting of

    southern ballots may not begin for three to four days, after

    some boxes were found with their seals broken.

    Meanwhile, diplomats said the US would urge European allies

    to help expand Nato's peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan at a

    meeting of defence ministers starting on Wednesday.

    With the Afghan election broadly free of violence, Nato is

    anxious to push ahead with an operation whose credibility has

    been hurt by the reluctance of allies to offer troops and

    equipment.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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