UN chief Ban Ki-moon makes surprise Afghan visit

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Afghanistan today as international pressure mounted for a quick resolution to the country's electoral turmoil.

President Hamid Karzai's only challenger former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the two-man race yesterday, effectively handing him a victory.

But it is still unclear if the vote will go forward on Saturday as scheduled. The two had been in talks about a power-sharing deal, and negotiations may still be going on. Dr Abdullah chose not to boycott the vote, a conciliatory move that could mean he is still hoping for a deal.

Ban will meet the two men "to assure them and the Afghan people of the continuing support of the United Nations toward the development of the country," the UN said.

A deadly attack on a Kabul guest house with UN election workers last week has raised questions about whether the UN might scale back in Afghanistan. Militants stormed the compound before dawn, killing five UN staff and three Afghans.

The UN kept operating after an August 2003 truck bombing at its headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, but after a second bombing it shut down operations in Iraq in late October 2003 for years.

Ban will also meet UN staff and security officials, the statement said.

Taliban threats of more violence and the difficulty of organising and securing the balloting mean that officials are looking for a way to end the process without sending people back to the polls this week.

Mr Karzai has said the run-off should go forward as planned, but there is no clear article in Afghanistan's constitution or electoral law to address the situation. The chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said that he would have to meet constitutional lawyers before deciding how to proceed.

It has been more than a month since the August 20 vote that aimed to strengthen the Afghan government but instead undermined its credibility both at home and with key allies in the West.

The vote was characterised by rampant ballot-box stuffing, and fraud investigators threw out nearly a third of Mr Karzai's votes which dropped him below the 50% threshold needed to win outright, forcing the run-off vote.

UN and US representatives were yesterday still involved in negotiations with the two about a power-sharing deal.

Dr Abdullah has said his decision not to participate in the run-off is final. But in a sign of how much the situation is in flux, a spokesman said Monday that they could be open to still having a second round if it is delayed to put in safeguards to prevent fraud.