Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 17:50 UK

Afghan election goes to run-off

President Hamid Karzai: "This is a good step forward"

Afghanistan will hold a deciding round of its problem-hit presidential poll on 7 November, pitting Hamid Karzai against his rival Abdullah Abdullah.

News of the run-off vote follows weeks of mounting international pressure.

It comes a day after a UN-backed panel said it had clear evidence of fraud in August's first round, lowering Mr Karzai's vote share below 50%.

Mr Karzai told a news conference that he accepted the findings, adding they were a "step forward" for democracy.

Mr Abdullah, speaking to the BBC, also said the move would "help democracy in this country and strengthen the faith of the people in the democratic process".

Martin Patience
Martin Patience, BBC News, Kabul

The Afghan leader thought - and perhaps still believes - that an election victory had been stolen from him because of "foreign meddling."

Now that a run-off has been scheduled, there will be questions raised as to whether it can be successfully organised to be held in two weeks time.

There will also be concerns over the security situation - and there's no guarantee that there won't be a repeat of the fraud, which seriously marred the first round of voting.

Initial results suggested Mr Karzai, the incumbent, had received 55% of the vote, and ex-Foreign Minister Mr Abdullah 28%.

But the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) deducted hundreds of thousands of votes from the main candidates.

Its investigation focused on 600 of the most serious complaints, and a sample audit of suspect votes at 3,377 polling stations. At 210 polling stations all the ballots were invalidated.

This meant Mr Karzai's total was reduced to below the 50% plus one vote threshold for outright victory, indicating a second round was needed.

Since the disputed first round of polling, there has been intensive Western lobbying of Afghanistan's leaders to resolve the weeks of political paralysis.

The White House - debating a request for 40,000 more US troops to be sent to Afghanistan - warned at the weekend no more soldiers would be deployed until a political resolution was reached.

Correspondents say it was therefore not surprising to see Mr Karzai give his reaction to the run-off, at a news conference alongside UN envoy Kai Eide and US Senator John Kerry.

Hamid Karzai:
First popularly elected president of Afghanistan
Opposed Soviet occupation in 1980s
Critics say he has done little to rein in corruption
Abdullah Abdullah:
Tajik-Pashtun, doctor by profession
Senior Northern Alliance leader during Taliban rule
Removed from Karzai's cabinet in 2006

"This is not the right time to discuss investigations, this is the time to move forward to stability and national unity," Mr Karzai said.

"I call upon our nation to change this into an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination, to move our country forward and to participate in the new round of elections."

Mr Abdullah told the BBC he had telephoned Mr Karzai to thank him for his remarks.

"He talked about national unity and also he stressed on the need for going to the second round which is exactly what I want to do - so that was a courtesy call, a word of thanks," he said.

He added: "I know that there are challenges with it; the security situation, and the winter is coming... but I think the fact that the process is moving now forward rather than being stuck, that in itself I consider it a step forward and we have to face the challenges."

Abdullah: 'It was an achievement'

The BBC's Martin Patience, in Kabul, says there will be no guarantee that any new vote will be free of the fraud that dogged the first round.

But for now the political deadlock appears to have been broken, for a couple of weeks at least, our correspondent says.

Mr Karzai's decision was been warmly welcomed by world leaders.

US President Barack Obama described it as an important and constructive step forward.

Election results graphic

"It is now vital that all elements of Afghan society continue to come together to advance democracy, peace and justice," he added.

US officials later said that the president had not yet determined whether to make a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan before the runoff.

Sen Kerry said a second round of voting was a great opportunity and a turning point, praising Mr Karzai for the "genuine leadership in the decision he has made".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "President Karzai's statement shows to all that he is a statesman who can decide on what is essential, in the higher interests of his country and of the unity of the Afghan people."

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown also welcomed President Hamid Karzai's "statesmanlike" acceptance of the run-off.

Meanwhile, correspondents say it is possible that President Karzai and his challenger may reach an agreement to form a national unity government, meaning that a run off may not be required.

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Guardian Unlimited Afghans hurry to stage election runoff - 4 hrs ago
New StatesmanLeader: Why Britain must abort mission in Afghanistan - 9 hrs ago
Times Online Changes needed to avoid repeat of Afghan vote fraud, says Abdullah - 15 hrs ago
Xinhua News Agency Afghan runoff vote to face challenges - 16 hrs ago
The Scotsman Karzai's rival ready to contest election run-off - 16 hrs ago
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