Afghanistan puts elections on hold

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President Hamid Karzai postponed Afghanistan's first post-Taliban national elections until September yesterday because the United Nations urged more time was needed to disarm warlords that it called a leading threat to democracy.

UN leaders had warned a delay of the vote may be necessary because officials, security forces and candidates were ill-prepared to register up to 10.5 million eligible Afghans in time for June elections.

Delaying the vote means Afghanistan can run the presidential and the parliamentary elections simultaneously, President Karzai said. "We wanted to have both elections together," he added. "That's also the desire of the people."

Jean Arnault, the UN special representative to Afghanistan, welcomed the decision, saying it would allow Nato to expand its peacekeeping operations beyond Kabul. Mr Arnault called on the Afghan government to guarantee a level playing field for challengers to President Karzai and a rash of new political parties. He said:"That these elections will be free and fair depends on what happens between now and September."

So far, the UN has registered only 1.6 million eligible voters, all of them in urban centres. It remains unclear how UN workers plan to execute a planned May push to give a further 8 million a chance to sign up, especially in remote provinces, where President Karzai's government holds little sway and fears of violence are high.

The Afghan government said it will disarm 40,000 irregular Afghan militia soldiers and round up heavy weapons in time for the vote to reduce the risk of voter intimidation. More than 200 people have died in violence around the country this year.

But the UN, the US-led military coalition and the Afghan government are still working on plans to protect election workers from Taliban-led militants plaguing the south and east.

Hamid Agha, a Taliban spokesman, said the delay was "a humiliation and defeat" for President Karzai and his US backers and claimed the elections would be fixed. He said: "They want to divert the attention of Afghans from the importance of jihad."