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Karzai widens lead in Afghan vote

KABUL, Aug 26 – Incumbent Hamid Karzai widened his lead in the race for the Afghan presidency in new results unveiled Wednesday from an election marked by fraud and Taliban intimidation.

Officials have now announced results from 17 percent of counted votes cast in the second ever direct presidential vote in a country riven by Taliban bloodshed and simmering ethnic tension, eight years after the US-led invasion.

A massive bombing in Afghanistan’s biggest city in the south, where the Taliban are strong and turnout was low, killed 43 people on Tuesday. The deadliest bombing in over a year, it pointed to the success of Taliban intimidation.

Of nearly a million ballots so-far counted, the Western-backed Karzai had 422,137 votes or 42.3 percent with ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah on 330,751 votes or 33.1 percent, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said.

To avoid a potentially divisive second round run-off, one candidate must win an outright majority of 50 percent plus one vote.

The first results released from last week’s ballot had put Karzai neck and neck with Abdullah, who led a strong campaign for change and has alleged that widespread state engineered fraud has damaged the vote.

The IEC will trickle out results on a daily basis, but the final result is not expected until next month and can only be certified after an independent commission has investigated around 790 claims of abuses on election day.

Figures released to AFP by Karzai’s campaign office put him on track to win between 55 and 62 percent of the vote, but with turnout at less than 5.5 million of up to 17 million registered to vote.

The race between the two increasingly bitter rivals has been tainted with claims of fraud and ballot box-stuffing, most of it in favour of Karzai, whose camp has been claiming victory since shortly after polls closed.

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Analysts have said that low turnout — potentially less than 35 percent and one of the aims of the Taliban intimidation campaign — could raise questions about the legitimacy of the victor, possibly leading to unrest.

The Taliban had pledged to disrupt the election, which was the second of its kind in the history of Afghanistan and the focus of Western efforts to implant democracy.

With the insurgency at record levels and 2009 now the deadliest year in Afghanistan for foreign troops since the US invasion, the Islamist rebels were blamed for killing 43 people and injuring 65 in southern city Kandahar.

The force of the explosion shattered windows and brought down buildings, trapping people under rubble as they were breaking their Ramadan fast, General Ghulam Ali Wahdat, the southern police zone commander, told AFP.

The bomb blew up near a Japanese construction company, a guest house used by foreigners and government offices, in what is Karzai’s home province.

The president ordered the arrest of "those responsible as soon as possible" and pledged 25 million afghanis (503,425 US dollars) in emergency assistance to repair destroyed shops and homes, his office said.

NATO, which has 64,500 troops fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan, held the Taliban responsible for the bombing, despite its denials.

"The Taliban carry out terrorist attacks on a regular basis throughout the country…. They cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for this attack, either directly or indirectly," said spokesman James Appathurai in Brussels.

The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, are known to exaggerate their claims as well as deny attacks involving civilian casualties.

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The interior ministry said 43 "innocent Afghan citizens" were killed. A wedding hall and a dozen civilian houses "were totally destroyed" it said.

The International Red Cross said one of its staff was killed.

Afghan and foreign forces sealed off the site in the troubled city, which was an old Taliban regime powerbase, as they sifted through the rubble from more than 10 buildings destroyed in the explosion, an AFP photographer saw.

The killings made it the deadliest explosion in Afghanistan since a suicide car bomber killed more than 60 people, including two senior diplomats, in an attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008.

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