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Page last updated at 16:56 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 17:56 UK

Afghan poll hailed as a 'success'

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Inside a Kabul polling station

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies have pronounced the country's election a success, after voting passed off largely peacefully.

Mr Karzai hailed Afghans for braving Taliban "bombs and intimidations". His praise was echoed by the US and Nato.

There were some attacks by insurgents, but the UN says the vast majority of polling stations were able to function.

President Karzai is facing challenges from about 30 rivals. Official results are not expected for two weeks.

"The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidations," he told reporters as polls closed following a one-hour extension.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai casts his vote in Kabul (20 August 2009)
Mr Karzai praised the citizens who turned out to vote

"We'll see what the turnout was. But they came out to vote. That's great."

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "Lots of people have defied threats of violence and terror to express their thoughts about the next government for the people of Afghanistan."

Mr Karzai said that based on reports by the interior ministry, 73 attacks had taken place in 15 provinces.

Among the violent incidents reported:

  • Taliban militants stormed a town in Baghlan, northern Afghanistan, preventing polling stations from opening, police tell AFP news agency. At least eight died in ensuing clashes with police
  • Taliban militants set fire to a bus on the Kandahar-Kabul highway in Ghazni, after offloading passengers and the driver, reportedly as punishment for violating a Taliban ban on using the road
  • Rockets hitting houses in Khost and Kandahar provinces killed two women and several children
  • More than 20 rockets landed in the capital of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold
  • In northern Baghlan province, a district police chief was killed when Taliban militants attacked a police post

Some 300,000 Afghan and Nato troops were on patrol to prevent attacks during the presidential and local polls.

Patchy turnout

Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission in Kabul said that overall, the security situation had been "better than we feared" and had "allowed people to take part in the elections".

ANALYSIS
John Simpson
John Simpson, BBC News, Kabul

The judgement that is starting to emerge in the presidential palace here in the headquarters of the international force and in the British and American embassies seems likely to be one of relief. It did not go too badly.

We will not know for some time whether President Karzai will have to face the mild humiliation of going through a second round or whether he managed to summon up sufficient votes to win this time.

But we do know that the blood-curdling threats of the Taliban have not amounted to very much, any more than they did at the last presidential election in 2004.

That is a big victory for the immense security operation which reached its culmination on Thursday. Yet, as we saw five years ago, just because the Taliban have lost a certain amount of face, it will not take them long to bounce back.

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen hailed the vote as "a testimony to the determination of the Afghan people to build democracy".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, issued a statement congratulating "the women and men of Afghanistan on today's presidential and provincial council elections".

The polls are the first organised primarily by Afghans themselves.

Speaking on state TV, the director of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Loudin, claimed turnout had been "high".

Apart from the earlier gun battle in Kabul, the city was mainly reported to be quiet, with a brisk turnout in some polling stations while there was little activity in others.

Fewer people voted in the south and east, where militant influence is greater.

In Jalalabad, in the eastern province of Nangarhar, some districts reported no voters at all.

In the southern city of Kandahar - the historical stronghold of the Taliban - a voting official told AP news agency that turnout appeared to be 40% lower than during the 2004 election.

AFGHAN POLLS
17 million eligible voters
Polls opened at 0700 (0230 GMT) and close at 1600
As well as presidential polls, voters choosing between 3,000 candidates for 420 seats in provincial councils
Official preliminary results not expected for two weeks but may be earlier indications
300,000 troops on patrol (including 100,000 foreign troops)
250,000 observers and journalists
First polls organised by Afghans themselves, but with international support

However in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the neighbouring Helmand province, many voters appeared to have taken part despite the bomb attacks.

The BBC's Martin Patience points out that three-quarters of Afghans live in the country's 30,000 rural villages - so it is turnout in the countryside which is key.

A voter in Kabul said she hoped the election would bring security to Afghanistan.

"We want the next president to stop the killing of innocent people and to find jobs for the people, and bring peace," she said.

But other would-be voters said they feared for their safety, while yet others said they had little faith in Afghan democracy.

"Unfortunately, democracy has been exported to Afghanistan, it hasn't grown up from the bottom to the top," said one.

There were widespread concerns about corruption in the run-up to the poll, with reports of voting cards being openly sold and of candidates offering large bribes.

'Day of hope'

Opinion polls put support for Hamid Karzai, one of 30 candidates, at about 45%, with his former Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, in second place with 25%.

This is not an election, this is a comedy
Ramazan Bashardost
Presidential candidate

His other two main opponents are the independent candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and ex-World Bank official Ramazan Bashardost.

Mr Abdullah called it a "day of change, a day of hope" - but Mr Bashardost said he had washed off the supposedly indelible ink used to identify people who have voted.

"This is not an election, this is a comedy," Mr Bashardost said, calling on authorities to stop the election.

His claims were rejected by the Independent Election Commission.

Official preliminary results are not expected until 2 September, with the full final results scheduled for 17 September, but there may be earlier indications.

If the winning candidate fails to gain more than 50% of the vote on Thursday, there will be a second-round run-off in October.



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