Kabul: Fraud investigators threw out hundreds of thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai in the country`s disputed August election, according to a report released on Monday. The findings set the stage for a runoff between him and his top challenger.
It was unclear, however, whether the Independent Election Commission would accept the findings of the UN-backed fraud panel and announce a runoff. Karzai`s spokesman said it was too soon to make a judgment based on the figures released by the panel.
Two international officials familiar with the investigation told a news agency that the findings showed Karzai falling below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with his chief rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Preliminary results released last month showed Karzai winning the August 20 election with more than 54 percent. However, allegations of widespread fraud prompted the investigation by the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission and held up a final proclamation of a winner.
Investigators did not release enough figures to allow for an independent judgment, but it was clear that hundreds of thousands of Karzai votes were voided. In all, more than five million votes were cast in the election.
"I don`t think we can make any judgment based on the figures announced today," Karzai campaign spokesman Waheed Omar said.
That has raised fears that the Karzai-influenced election commission may refuse to call for a runoff — further delaying formation of a government that the US believes is needed to help combat the growing Taliban insurgency.
A protracted crisis could also lead to political unrest. Hundreds of Karzai supporters protested in the south over the weekend, calling for the electoral commission to release results quickly and saying they will reject a second round.
They gathered in the main street of the southeastern city of Spin Boldak on Sunday, shouting, "We want the result!" and "Karzai is our leader!"
Ali Shah Khan, a tribal leader from the area, said the protesters believed the August vote was fair and that foreigners were delaying the results to unseat Karzai.
"We know they don`t want President Karzai because he is a strong leader and he is working only for the people of Afghanistan," Khan said. "The foreign countries want a weak leader for Afghanistan. After that they can do whatever they want."
The White House says President Barack Obama will not send more US troops until a credible government is in place.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and US Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were in Kabul last weekend urging the Afghans to resolve the standoff quickly.
Abdullah campaign spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said the UN-backed panel "is under threat" from Karzai. He alleged the President was urging the election commission not to accept the results of the fraud probe.
"He`s telling them not to accept the findings if they show less than 50 percent for him. That`s why the IEC is not accepting the final report," he said. "There is no end to this misery. Negotiations are still going on, but there is no agreement."
Omar, Karzai`s campaign spokesman, has denied any presidential interference.
As the debate rages, deadly fighting continues.
On Monday, Taliban militants set fire to 15 trucks carrying supplies to a military base in eastern Ghazni province, according to local official Sahib Khan. Afghan security guards killed two militants during the fighting.
Two Afghan security troopers were killed in a gun battle overnight with Taliban fighters near Ghazni city, provincial spokesman Ismail Jahangir said.