Kabul: Afghanistan`s floundering attempts to declare a winner of its presidential election inched forward today with a deal allowing an audit of all votes to restart, but the United Nations warned of the risk of further delays.
Alleged fraud during the June 14 election has plunged the country into a crisis as US-led troops wind down their war against Taliban insurgents and President Hamid Karzai prepares to step down after ruling since 2001.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said the two poll rivals, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, had finally agreed how the massive audit would separate fraudulent ballots from genuine votes.
Over eight million votes were cast on polling day, but Abdullah claimed "industrial-scale" fraud had denied him victory after preliminary results suggested that Ghani had won easily.
As the deepening stand-off threatened to spark a return to the ethnic violence of the 1992-1996 civil war, US Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Kabul earlier this month and persuaded the two opponents to agree to the audit.
But the process has been beset by stoppages as the campaign teams fought over each disputed ballot paper. "What is now needed is full engagement of the parties, the international community and domestic observers," Jan Kubis, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, told reporters.
"Any delays, any uncertainties, have a major negative impact on both the political and economic situation in Afghanistan."
The audit will restart on Saturday, though the timetable for the new president to be inaugurated on August 2 has been abandoned and no new date has been set.
A smooth election was seen as essential to justify the costly US-led military and civilian aid effort since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, and recent insurgent offensives have heightened fears of a worsening spiral of violence.
The disputed result and uncertainty over when Karzai will hand over power has tainted earlier celebrations over the high turnout and lack of major militant attacks in both the April first-round vote and the run-off seven weeks ago.
"We will resume auditing on Saturday... We ask the candidates and all their agents to respect this decision and cooperate," said IEC chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani.
"The election process has taken a long time and this has concerned people -- business is literally down, it has created a lot of economic problems."