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Fraud allegations spark Afghan election dispute

Afghan election authorities on Sunday strongly denied top officials were guilty of fraud after front-running presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah unleashed allegations that could threaten a smooth transition of power.

KABUL: Afghan election authorities on Sunday strongly denied top officials were guilty of fraud after front-running presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah unleashed allegations that could threaten a smooth transition of power.

Abdullah demanded the sacking of Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) secretariat, over Amarkhail's alleged attempt to remove unused ballots from the IEC headquarters on polling day.

Abdullah also said the IEC's turnout figure of seven million voters in Saturday's run-off election was probably false.

But IEC chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani rejected the accusations against Amarkhail, and said the turnout figure was an early estimate that might be adjusted.

Abdullah's allegations put him in direct conflict with election authorities as counting got underway after the second-round vote between him and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.

The dispute erupted despite a plea from the United Nations for the candidates to give officials time to conduct the count and adjudicate on fraud complaints.

A successful election is a key test of the 13-year international military and aid effort in Afghanistan as the bulk of US-led troops withdraw by the end of the year.

"I strongly reject these allegations," Nuristani said, adding Amarkhail was stopped by police when he was overseeing the delivery of extra ballot papers to polling stations that had run out.

"It was a misunderstanding between police and our staff," Nuristani said. "We do not want a crisis for the people of Afghanistan -- they are tired of crises."

Abdullah believes massive fraud denied him victory in the 2009 presidential race, and has often said that only widespread ballot-rigging could stop him from winning this time.

Late on Sunday, Abdullah described the seven million turnout figure as "questionable".

"What we are concerned about is once again engineered fraud," he said.

"The head of the secretariat was... caught red-handed and we want an investigation. We want him to be removed from his position."

Counting the ballot will take weeks. The preliminary result is due on July 2, before the official complaints period begins, and the final result is scheduled for July 22.

The two candidates went through to the run-off after coming top in the eight-man first round race on April 5, when Abdullah secured 45 per cent and Ghani scored 31.6 per cent.

The Electoral Complaints Commission had registered about 560 complaints by Monday morning, including claims against both campaign teams, IEC staff and the security forces.

Saturday's election was hailed a success despite more than 50 people killed in separate Taliban strikes on polling day.

Eleven voters in the western province of Herat had their fingers -- which were dipped in ink to register their ballot -- cut off by insurgents.

The White House praised voters' courage and called the elections "a significant step forward on Afghanistan's democratic path".

All NATO combat forces are due to withdraw from the country by December, though 10,000 US troops will remain into next year.

President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled since the fall of Taliban in 2001, was constitutionally barred from standing for a third term.

Priorities for the incoming president will be to stabilise the faltering economy as aid falls, and a fresh attempt to bring peace after decades of war by exploring peace talks with the Taliban.

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