Warlords 'call shots in Afghan election'

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Afghanistan's first democratic election next month will be held in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, according to a report which blames America for continuing to pay warlords to hunt the Taliban.

Human Rights Watch found genuine democrats too scared to take part in politics and warned that intimidation of voters has happened on a massive scale. Polling day is just two weeks away and many fear it could be an extremely corrupt process.

The findings of the report, The Rule of the Gun - Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-up to Afghanistan's Presidential Election, are a blow to the credibility of an election that had promised to be the start of building a genuine democracy and cutting the power of warlords.

Much of Afghanistan is still run by private armies involved in extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder, the report said, adding: "Warlords continue to pose a serious threat to the free exercise of political rights."

One Afghan in Jalalabad, who had given up politics, told the authors: "Here today whatever the gunmen want ultimately happens. We don't know what kind of democracy this is." A UN worker in the same city said: "Elections are being held in an atmosphere of near complete lack of rule of law."

Warlord candidates such as the Uzbek strongman Rashid Dostum were supported in public but feared in private.

Village elders in the east complained they had been threatened and told to vote for candidates including President Karzai, although he was almost certainly unaware of such intimidation. The report warned that Mr Karzai is in danger of winning a hollow victory, aand it concluded: "There are few reasons for optimism."

John Sifton from Human Rights Watch said: "The warlords are calling the shots.Politically active people are not taking part and few voters understand the secret ballot, so people are being told how to vote. The US and their Nato allies have not made human rights and democratisation a priority."