Abdullah's supporters threaten to take up arms over 'rigged' election

In northern Afghanistan, where opposition to Hamid Karzai is strong, the mood is darkening

With the results of Afghanistan's presidential election expected later today, supporters of the opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah, delivered a grim message last night, threatening violence if their candidate loses.

Standing by the black marble grave of their fallen leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, two former mujahedin fighters said they still had their guns and warned that they had not forgotten how to use them.

Like most of Afghanistan's Tajik community, they had voted for Mr Abdullah, a former foreign minister of Tajik and Pashtun ancestry, who fought alongside their beloved Commander Masoud against the Soviet invaders and then the Taliban.

If the election is "stolen" by Hamid Karzai, the reaction would be violent, the former guerillas declared. Mohammed Amin, 51, said: "We have heard Karzai is saying he has already won. We have also heard there has been a lot of fraud in the south. The election cannot be decided like this. The international community should correct this and have these votes taken again. If they do not, people will resist. This is Afghanistan, and we have all got arms. If people are angry, we will use these arms."

The last time they waged war, under the charismatic command of Masoud, was to keep the Pashtun Taliban at bay when they had already conquered the rest of the country. Supporters of Mr Karzai are claiming a landslide victory in the election, which would give him outright victory without having to go to a second round.

Mr Abdullah, in turn, has further raised the temperature by accusing the President of being personally involved in organising of "ballot stuffing". But he has also urged his supporters to stay calm while the electoral commission investigates his concerns. Faced with repeated reports of fraud and intimidation, international monitors who at first declared the ballot a success have been forced to acknowledge there has been serious and worrying malpractice.

Kai Eide, the head of the United Nations mission in the country, said yesterday: "There is no doubt there were irregularities on polling day. I appeal to the candidates, their campaigns and also to the voters to demonstrate the patience and calm required while these are investigated."

But here in the spiritual home of the Northern Alliance, patience is wearing thin. "Look up there," said Mr Amin, pointing to the mountains rising above the verdant valley of the River Panjshir. "That is where we made a stand with Ahmed Shah Masoud when the Russians attacked us. We must make a stand again if wrong is being done at the election."

His companion, Abdul Dosht, 47, added: "No one wants to fight fellow Afghans. We are all the same. But why should people accept their votes being ignored? If people on the other side are not being democratic what choice have we got but to fight? But if that happens we won't be fighting just for Tajiks, we'll be fighting for all Afghanistan."

During his campaign, Mr Karzai privately raised the spectre of ethnic violence and a return to civil war. Dr Abdullah's team, meanwhile, has threatened that there will be disturbances of the type which followed the disputed Iranian elections – "only worse" – if victory is corruptly obtained by the President.

There is much talk of a backroom deal being done between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah. But there is a sense of a very personal enmity and grievance between the two candidates. Dr Abdullah, who studied ophthalmology at Kabul University, says he proposed Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, as the new leader of Afghanistan as the Taliban were being driven out in 2001.

A few months later, on becoming President with Dr Abdullah as his foreign minister, Mr Karzai came to pray at the grave side of Commander Masoud, who was murdered by al-Qa'ida in the run up to the 9/11 attacks on the US. Later, Dr Abdullah and Mr Karzai fell out amid mutual acrimony.

There is now a mausoleum at the site on "Chief of Martyrdom Hill" with a montage of photographs, many showing Dr Abdullah in the company of Commander Masoud. Work is under way to construct a complex with a Masoud Museum and a mosque. The Iranians who backed Commander Masoud against the Taliban are providing much of the funding. Karzai's camp has privately warned that Dr Abdullah is "too close" to the regime in Tehran.

Habib Rahim, one of the financial officers for museum project, said: "Yes, President Karzai came here and he said he would unify the country and work for all the people. But what has happened since?

"We don't have a proper president, there is violence, unemployment, the economy is bad. People want change and that is why so many of us voted for a change.

"This change cannot be stopped by corruption. If that happens there is a real danger of a conflict."

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