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Karzai in the lead

KABUL, Sep 17 – Afghan President Hamid Karzai won 54.6 percent of the preliminary count released Wednesday from controversial elections, but his victory is not secure until claims of massive vote fraud are resolved.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) released figures which put Karzai on track to win a second term with more than the necessary 50 percent plus one vote, a clear lead on nearest rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has 27.8 percent.

But the announcement comes with Karzai on a collision course with his international backers, as his office accuses European observers of meddling in the elections by saying that 1.5 million votes could be fraudulent.

The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has also ordered a recount at 2,500 polling stations, a process which will likely take weeks.

"Based on the preliminary results that we have announced today, Hamid Karzai is at the front of the queue," IEC official Daud Ali Najafi told reporters.

"This is just the preliminary results, we will have final results when we investigate the (fraud) claims," he said. It was "impossible" to announce Afghanistan’s new president on Thursday as originally scheduled, he added.

Turnout was 38.7 percent, Najafi said, with threats of violence by Taliban militants waging an insurgency apparently keeping people away from the polls.

The total number of ballots cast was 5,918,741 from a total of 15,295,016 registered voters. Of 5,662,758 valid votes, 3,093,356 went to Karzai and 1,571,581 to Abdullah, whose spokesman immediately condemned the results.

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Most of the questionable ballots are in Karzai’s strongholds and if the recount pushes the incumbent’s lead below 50 percent, the IEC would have to hold a run-off between the two leading candidates.

The ECC ordered a partial recount because of "convincing evidence of fraud" while European observers say almost a quarter of the votes could be tarnished.

"We have calculated 1.5 million suspicious votes," said Dimitra Ioannou, the deputy head of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Afghanistan.

She told reporters that 1.1 million of the suspicious votes were cast for Karzai and 300,000 for Abdullah.

"Massive fraud was taking place at polling station level and when all these ballot boxes arrived at the tally centres, instead of being quarantined and investigated, they were accepted as good results," Ioannou said.

EU chief observer Philippe Morillon added: "We refuse to be complicit in any attempt of massive fraud."

Karzai’s office retaliated with a statement damning the announcement as "partial, irresponsible and in contradiction with Afghanistan’s constitution."

"We believe the only way we can have a legitimate result out of the current process is to allow the legal institutions to complete the process and refrain from interfering in their affairs," it said.

Najafi also accused the EU of meddling, telling the press conference: "The observers… do not have the right to interfere in the election."

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In Munich, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the results had to be carefully checked because of the fraud accusations.

"The announced results are provisional and can only be provisional because of the serious fraud accusations," said Steinmeier, whose country has 3,700 troops in Afghanistan.

Abdullah has shown no sign of conceding the vote, alleging state-engineered fraud and urging a run-off.

His campaign spokesman Sayed Aqa Fazel Sancharaki said that if the 1.5 million suspicious votes raised by the EU were investigated and thrown out, Karzai’s share of the vote "will drop drastically".

"We do not accept these results at all," he told AFP.

"As long as all suspicious and fraudulent votes are not addressed and the final findings of the ECC are not announced, any results from the IEC are not important."

Karzai’s campaign spokesman Waheed Omer said the incumbent was "clearly ahead," but said they would await the outcome of fraud audits.

Observers have warned that time is running out for a second round, with the onset of winter in two months making the logistics of organising an election in impoverished Afghanistan difficult.

This could create a dangerous political vacuum in a nation where more than 100,000 US and NATO-led troops are battling a virulent insurgency by Taliban militants bent on toppling the government.

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