Afghan polls delayed amid intimidation

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The Afghan elections scheduled for September will be delayed because of wrangling among officials and political parties. The delay, which comes against a backdrop of increased violence, is a blow for President Hamid Karzai who said on Tuesday that the polls must go ahead on time and pleaded for more Nato troops to maintain security.

The deadline for setting a polling date in September is today and Farook Wardak, of the country's election management body said no decision on setting a date would be taken. Under Afghan law, polling day must be set at least 90 days in advance. "Much more consultation is required," Mr Wardak said "I'm hopeful that next week we'll have a decision."

Mr Karzai has pledged repeatedly to hold the elections in September, despite mounting violence against election workers and concern that warlords will use intimidation to cement their power. Nato agreed this week to increase its forces from 6,500 to 10,000 to bolster security during the elections but Mr Karzai asked for troops to be sent immediately. He said: "I welcome very much your decision to send us security forces to help us with the elections. But ... we need security forces today to provide a secure environment for elections for the Afghan people and beyond."

Presidential and parliamentary elections were already delayed from June - and October is seen as the last chance to hold a vote before snow closes high passes in the Hindu Kush until the spring of 2005.

Mr Karzai has argued that blocking the formation of parliament would betray Afghans' hopes, some three years after the ousting of the Taliban regime and more than two decades after the nation was plunged into a series of ruinous wars.

The votes should be held simultaneously but observers say there is a possibility that officials could separate them, holding the presidential vote in October and the parliamentary election next year.

International officials have been warning for months that security is inadequate to hold the election. The United Nations, which holds half the seats on the election body, has warned that warlords and faction leaders - some in government - must disarm their private armies to keep the vote credible. "There is a debate," a UN spokesman said. "Of course, if the debate goes on, that will have an impact on the election date."

The latest delay follows several weeks of attacks on election workers and ordinary voters. Two female election voters and more than a dozen Afghans who had registered were killed last week.

Analysts doubt whether the vote itself can be any better protected, even though thousands of foreign troops and newly trained Afghan security forces are to shield polling stations.

Mr Wardak said the government census office had yet to deliver vital population estimates so that the distribution of seats in parliament could be decided.

He also said only four of the 20 political parties consulted by the election body insist on the parliamentary vote being held this autumn. That has not deterred Afghans from registering to vote, with 5.5 million of the estimated 9.5 million eligible Afghans already signed up, including two million women.

But there is concern many will vote along lines dictated by local strongmen and wealthy drug barons, blunting the hopes of independent candidates.

* An Australian television journalist who went missing in Afghanistan last weekend is alive, her network said yesterday. Carmela Baranowska, a reporter for the SBS network, spoke briefly by phone to her mother and her employer but neither offered a reason for her disappearance.