Karzai's main rival admits defeat in presidential race

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The Independent Online

Hamid Karzai's main rival for the Afghan presidency yesterday conceded defeat with less than 6 per cent of the vote count remaining.

Mr Karzai, who took power in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, will be Afghan-istan's first directly elected leader after a quarter of a century of modern warfare and centuries of tribal conflict.

A spokesman said the former education minister, Yunus Qanuni, would accept Mr Karzai's victory, despite claims of irregularities in the 9 October election, agency reports say. "We accept in the interests of the nation, because we don't want to face another crisis," the spokesman added.

An expert panel is reviewing allegations of electoral fraud, and an official announcement declaring the winner is expected to take days. Mr Karzai has 4,240,041 votes so far, more than half of the estimated 8,129,935 valid votes cast. Some 7,666,529 votes - or 94.3 per cent of the total - had been counted by the time Mr Qanuni conceded, after gaining just 16.2 per cent of the votes.

Hamed Elmi, Mr Karzai's campaign spokesman, said: "I'm going to see his excellency this evening to see when to start the celebrations. We were up against 17 candidates, but the people were behind us. We will sleep soundly tonight."

Mr Karzai's other rivals for the Afghan presidency say they are reserving judgement, pending the investigation. Mohammed Mohaqeq, a Hazara chieftain who is running third with 11.8 per cent of the vote, refused to concede. "It's too early to judge the result now," he said.

Mr Karzai has served as stopgap president since US forces drove out the Taliban regime for harbouring Osama bin Laden. Election victory will give him a five-year mandate.

Afghans are frustrated at the slow pace of their country's recovery, but Mr Karzai has rounded up strong support in the cities and among fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group. His win could boost Afghanistan's main sponsor, President George Bush, in his own bid for re-election on 2 November.

But the country is still a dangerous place. On Saturday, an American woman and an Afghan girl were killed in a Taliban suicide attack in a bustling street in Kabul. The dead woman was in her early twenties and worked for a translation company and the girl was between 10 and 12, hospital workers said. Three Icelandic civilian peace-keepers and two other Afghan civilians were wounded.

Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Poulain, spokesman for the Nato-led mission, said the attacker, who was disguised as a beggar, had detonated a string of grenades strapped to his waist. A Taliban spokesman said that more suicide missions were being prepared.

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