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August 21, 2009

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Low voter turnout in south to hit Karzai's election chances

TALIBAN threats appeared to dampen voter turnout in the militant south yesterday when Afghans chose the next president for their deeply troubled country. Insurgents launched scattered rocket, suicide and bomb attacks that closed some polling sites.

After 10 hours of voting, including a last-minute, one-hour extension, election workers began to count the millions of ballots cast across the country. Initial results weren't expected until tomorrow.

Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai's re-election chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Turnout in the north appeared to be stronger, a good sign for Abdullah.

International officials have predicted an imperfect election - Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential vote - but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate, a key component of US President Barack Obama's war strategy. Taliban militants, though, pledged to disrupt the vote and circulated threats that those who cast ballots will be punished.

A poll official in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40 percent lower than during the country's 2004 presidential election. Journalists reported low turnouts in Kabul compared with longer lines seen in the 2004 vote.

Militants carried out attacks around the country. Security companies in the capital reported at least five bomb attacks, and Kabul police exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide bombers died in the clash, police said.

The tight security across Kabul was relaxed after polls closed, as Afghan troops and police vacated checkpoints.

Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted at a Kabul high school in the morning. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink - a fraud prevention measure - and held it up for the cameras.

"I request that the Afghan people come out and vote, so through their ballot Afghanistan will be more secure, more peaceful," Karzai said.

Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 by a US-led invasion, is favored to finish first among the 36 official candidates, although a late surge by Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.


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