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Presidential challenger talks tough on Afghan poll

New demands come on bloodiest day for American troops in four years

The Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has demanded the immediate dismissal of the country's top election official as a pre-condition for taking part in a run-off vote scheduled for next month.

The ultimatum, which also sought the suspension of three government ministers, is seen as highly impractical so close to the poll. It could serve as cover for an honourable exit from the race.

Mr Abdullah was speaking after 16 American soldiers had died in separate incidents in Afghanistan, the heaviest one-day loss of life for US forces in the country in four years. In the biggest incident, seven soldiers and three drug enforcement officials died when their Chinook crashed after a firefight with insurgents in western Afghanistan.

For the past six days election officials have been rushing to organise a second round of voting after the frontrunner, President Hamid Karzai, grudgingly agreed to a run-off last week. But a power-sharing deal between the two candidates would be the more pragmatic solution, analysts say.

Flanked by running mates, campaign aides and turbanned elders, Mr Abdullah said his conditions were "the most modest demands we could come up with. The people of Afghanistan ... don't want to go through the same thing in a few days' time. These are the minimum conditions [for participation in the second round]".

Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), is a former presidential adviser appointed by Mr Karzai. His bias towards the president has staggered onlookers, not least when the IEC decided to break its own anti-fraud rules to boost Mr Karzai's tally. At the weekend The New York Times quoted Mr Ludin as saying: "We will have another election, and we'll have the same result. Karzai is going to win." Yesterday Mr Ludin angrily denied making the remark and said he would not stand down.

With the run-off fixed for 7 November, there is little time to introduce the changes Mr Abdullah wants. Instead, analysts and supporters say his conditions pave the way for a face-saving withdrawal from a vote he will almost certainly lose. His running mate, Homayoun Shah Assefy, said: "Is a rigged and controversial election better than boycotting the election? I think the second." Mr Abdullah also wants "ghost" polling stations (which existed on paper but were too dangerous to visit on polling day) to be shut down. Mr Abdullah refused to say how he would react if his conditions were not met, but set a deadline of 31 October.

At the very least, his demands will intensify the pressure on Mr Karzai as the two men horse-trade over the make-up of the next government.