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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Afghans elect first representatives
Loya Jirga commission member meets elders
Afghans are discussing the formation of a Loya Jirga
Thousands of people in the district of Mardyan in the far north of Afghanistan have elected local representatives, the first step in a process which will end in a new Afghan government in June.

Afghan nomads
Afghan nomads: The Loya Jirga will reflect the country's diversity

The representatives will go on to choose regional delegates by secret ballot for the Loya Jirga, the assembly that will meet in Kabul to choose a new administration.

The most senior United Nations official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the huge turnout showed just how ready Afghans were for peace.

The most powerful man in the north, General Abdul Rashid Dostum also came, saying no one could stop the people expressing their will.

But correspondents say British and American forces in Afghanistan say they have noticed a sharp increase in al-Qaeda activity in the east of the country.

Party atmosphere

Despite the heightened military tensions, there was a mood of celebration as thousands of voters from 16 villages in Mardyan turned out to cast their votes.

Loya Jirga
1,450 delegates
1,051 elected members
Guaranteed seats for 160 women
53 seats for current government
100 seats for Afghan refugees and six for internally displaced Afghans
25 seats for nomads

Music, drumming and dance marked the historic day.

It is an electoral college system, relying on Afghanistan's strong traditional democratic institutions.

And in two months time, there should be a new, more legitimate government in Kabul.

The BBC's Kate Clark said the crowds went wild when Uzbek factional leader and deputy defence minister, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, made a surprise appearance.

Mr Brahimi welcomed General Dostum's presence.

"It is a very good thing, yes, you know, if a senior, senior commander is embracing this process, what best can we hope for?" Mr Brahimi said.

Military threat

The country may be moving closer to an elected government, but the forces of al-Qaeda are still to be reckoned with.

British Royal Marines based at Bagram Airport are poised to start combat operations.

But the weather in the snow-capped mountains is improving, making it easier for remaining al-Qaeda and Taleban units to move around.

Intelligence sources say many al-Qaeda members have fled to neighbouring Pakistan, regrouping out of reach of the British and US forces.

The allied forces' task is made all the more difficult by the terrain - mountains in the area soar to 3,600 metres (12,000 feet).

King's return

In Wardak province, west of Kabul, the forces of rival Afghan commanders are reported to be gearing up for more battles.

Nine people were reported killed in clashes on Friday between forces loyal to the interim administration, commanded by Muzaffaruddin, and those of royalist Ghulam Rohani Nangali.

Afghanistan's exiled 87-year-old king is scheduled to return later this week - raising fresh security fears.

King Zahir Shah is backed by interim leader Hamid Karzai, and is returning to inaugurate the Loya Jirga.

See also:

25 Jan 02 | South Asia
Q&A: What is a loya jirga?
12 Apr 02 | South Asia
Afghan king to return 'next week'
31 Mar 02 | South Asia
Date set for key Afghan forum
03 May 02 | South Asia
Afghan king to return home
07 Feb 02 | South Asia
First step for Afghan democracy
03 May 02 | South Asia
Ten years on: Kabul's new face
21 Mar 02 | Business
Afghanistan's new economic start
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