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August 26, 2009

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Afghan election too close to call

THE first partial results from Afghanistan's election had President Hamid Karzai and his main rival running neck-and-neck yesterday, suggesting a close race headed for a second round.

The country has been in political limbo since last Thursday's election, with Karzai and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah each claiming victory. Abdullah and other challengers have accused Karzai and authorities of widespread fraud.

The poll is a major test for Karzai after eight years in power and for United States President Barack Obama, who has poured in thousands of extra troops as part of his new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

The results, based on 10 percent of votes counted, gave Karzai a slight edge with 41 percent against 39 percent for Abdullah, his former foreign minister - a difference of about 10,000 out of about 524,000 valid votes counted.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke urged caution, saying the early results were misleading. "You don't call it with 10 percent; it's too early to call," Holbrooke, who left Afghanistan on Monday, told reporters in Turkey.

The results suggest a disappointing turnout of only about 5 million votes in a country of some 30 million people and an estimated 15 million eligible voters.

Taliban fighters had launched attacks and threatened reprisals against voters during Thursday's election, scaring many Afghans away from the polls, especially in the violent south.

"We will not allow big fraud to decide the outcome. There is no doubt state-crafted widespread fraud is underway," Abdullah told reporters yesterday before the results were released by the Independent Election Commission.

Abdullah said he had no plans to make a deal with Karzai to drop his bid for the presidency. "I will not make deals with anybody," he said.

Karzai was unavailable for comment.

Election officials have warned against drawing conclusions. They promise daily updates, but the complete count is not due until September 3.


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