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Fraud claims cloud growing Karzai lead

By Kim Sengupta in Kabul

The head of Barack Obama's team monitoring Afghanistan's election said yesterday that he was "extremely concerned" about persistent reports of fraud and that he would press for the claims to be fully investigated.

Timothy Carney made the comments during a meeting with Pashtun tribal chiefs and and the presidential candidate they had supported, Sarwar Ahmedzai, after the chiefs threatened to stage a protest against alleged attempts by President Hamid Karzai to steal the election.

Meanwhile, a second partial release of election results showed Mr Karzai widening his lead over his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

The latest count showed that the incumbent president had boosted his lead over his former foreign minister from just over 10,000 to 91,000. The latest returns lift Mr Karzai's share of the vote to 44.8 per cent, with Mr Abdullah now at 35.1 per cent. The count is based on returns from 17 per cent of polling stations nationwide.

The announcement of the latest count was interrupted by another candidate, Ramzan Bashardost, who claimed that the public tallying of the votes before more than a thousand complaints of electoral malpractice had been investigated was unconstitutional. Mr Bashardost had run a poorly funded but suprisingly well-supported campaign on an anti-corruption ticket.

The tribal leaders from Paktiya in the southern Pashtun belt descended on the capital, Kabul, to hold a protest rally against what they claimed was the theft of their votes by representatives of Mr Karzai. The protest, organised by the candidate from their area, Mr Ahmedzai, was called off after an appeal by Western officials who thought it might spark violence in the current atmosphere of public anger and disillusionment over the elections.

One Pashtun elder, Mir Ali, said to Mr Carney: "We will take to the mountains and fight as we have done in the past if this election is decided by fraud. Karzai may call himself a Pashtun but he has sold himself to the warlords."

Mr Carney said: "Our view is that all evidence of fraud should be given to the investigators and thoroughly examined in deciding the result [of the election]. The US and the international community are very concerned that this takes place."

Mr Ahmedzai said: "Karzai has surrounded himself with corrupt people and his brothers are corrupt. We reserve the right to take any action necessary if the fraud is not dealt with. More of our people are coming to Kabul and they are not going to tolerate the election being stolen."