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Fraud allegations spark Afghan election dispute

Afghan election authorities 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 Monday 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's fraud claims put him in direct conflict with the Independent Election Commission (IEC), raising fears of political instability as the bulk of US-led troops withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

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

He 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.

The dispute erupted despite pleas from the United Nations, the United States and the European Union for Abdullah and his poll rival Ashraf Ghani to give officials time to conduct the count and adjudicate on fraud complaints.

"We continue to feel that it's important to give the Afghan electoral bodies the time they need to do their work in processing the outcome of these elections," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

A successful election is a key test of the 13 year international military and aid effort to develop Afghanistan since the fall of the austere Taliban regime in 2001.

"I strongly reject these allegations," Nuristani said, adding that 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 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.

He told reporters on Monday that he "always asked supporters to show restraint" but that the problems could turn into a "crisis".

He also said Ghani was "absolutely" involved in fraud.

Ghani's campaign team responded by saying it had faith in the election authorities and their ability to ensure a fair result.

"We believe (Abdullah's) comments are in contradiction to the Afghan constitution, election laws and the democratic process," a Ghani spokesman said.

European Union (EU) chief election observer Thijs Berman on Monday called on the candidates "to refrain from inflammatory talk".

Counting the votes 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 election 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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