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October 18, 2009

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Pressure building on Karzai to respect fraud probe findings

INTERNATIONAL pressure was mounting yesterday on Afghanistan's president to respect imminent findings from a fraud investigation that seem likely to force him into a runoff.

At the same time, envoys were urging both candidates to strike a deal to end the country's election crisis rather than actually going forward with a potentially divisive and costly second vote.

The August 20 poll was marred by charges of ballot-stuffing and voter coercion, mostly to President Hamid Karzai's benefit. The fraud decisions - set to be announced as early as yesterday - could force a runoff between him and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah.

Both candidates deny they are negotiating to avert a second round. Karzai's camp is adamant he has won the first round outright, while Abdullah says a runoff is assured.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the candidates on Friday as concerns grew over who will lead the country, and when.

The talks are focused on getting Karzai to accept rulings showing a probable second round, an international official familiar with the discussions said.

The political crisis, and rising US casualties in the war against insurgents, have prompted the Obama administration to review its entire Afghanistan war strategy. Three American troops died in bomb attacks in the south and east, the latest casualties reported by NATO forces yesterday.

The French Foreign Ministry called on all parties to respect results of the fraud investigation and work toward either Karzai's inauguration or preparations for a runoff.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, US Democratic Senator John Kerry and former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, were in Kabul yesterday.

Kerry's trip was planned before the electoral crisis, but he has met with both candidates "to speak for Washington about the need for a legitimate outcome," according to a US Embassy official in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad held talks with both candidates and said he pressed them to reach a solution quickly.


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