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Page last updated at 21:44 GMT, Sunday, 16 August 2009 22:44 UK

Karzai's warlord links challenged

An Afghan girl listens to President Hamid Karzai on TV during the live debate in Kabul on 16 August 2009
Some 17 million Afghans are eligible to vote on Thursday

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been challenged about his alliances with warlords in a live TV election debate.

Ahead of Thursday's presidential poll, Mr Karzai was taken to task by two rival candidates, ex-ministers Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

But Mr Karzai defended his alliances in the 90-minute debate, saying they served the interests of national unity.

Meanwhile, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ex-warlord who was Mr Karzai's military chief-of-staff, has returned to Kabul.

If for national unity, there is need for such convenience, a thousand times I will do that
Hamid Karzai,
Afghan President

The Uzbek commander arrived from Turkey, where he has been living in exile since last year.

An official at the US embassy in Kabul said questions remained about Mr Dostum's alleged involvement in human rights violations.

Also on Sunday, the Taliban warned voters to boycott this week's poll or risk becoming caught up in militant attacks on voting stations.

Thursday's vote is for a president and members of the provincial council.

Backroom deals?

The televised head-to-head was the first debate the Afghan president has participated in for the forthcoming election.

Election material is loaded onto trucks en route to polling stations in Kabul on 16 August 2009
Final preparations are in full swing for the poll, despite militant threats

However, the man seen as Mr Karzai's strongest challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, did not take part.

Mr Karzai is tipped as the leading candidate in a crowded field of several dozen contenders vying to win a five-year term.

Mr Bashardost, an outspoken anti-corruption campaigner and former planning minister, who is seen as the third most-popular candidate, attacked the incumbent over his political allies.

"There are those who claim they are fighting warlords, but today warlords have the main role in their campaign, and [one] is their first vice-president. This is not acceptable for the people of Afghanistan," said Mr Bashardost.

Mr Karzai has chosen Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Tajik warlord, as his number two on the presidential ticket.

Ex-finance minister Mr Ghani also took aim at Mr Karzai's alliances, saying: "I have not struck any deals with any warlord, have not given any ministry, governor's position, or a part of Afghanistan to any of them."

Correspondents say many Afghans and diplomats fear any backroom deals made in an effort to help Mr Karzai's election campaign could empower old warlords and set back efforts to improve Afghanistan.

But Mr Karzai told his two rivals: "If for the national interest, for progress, for national unity, avoiding war... there is need for more such convenience, once again I will seek that. A thousand times I will do that."



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