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Abdullah rejects Afghan election audit

KABUL -- Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on Wednesday withdrew from a U.N.-supervised audit of the fraud-tainted election, tipping the country deeper into crisis less than a week before the scheduled inauguration.

Abdullah's rejection of the audit heightened fears of a violent backlash to the eventual result after a prolonged and bitter dispute about the rightful winner of the June 14 election.

The United Nations moved rapidly to try to save Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power by asking Ashraf Ghani, the other presidential candidate, also to remove his observers from the vote-checking process.

The stand-off between Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, and Ghani, an ex-World Bank economist, has threatened to revive ethnic unrest as U.S.-led NATO combat troops prepare to exit by the end of this year.

“We learned from the team of Dr. Abdullah that they have chosen not to participate in the audit process ... this withdrawal is regrettable,” U.N. Deputy Mission Chief Nicholas Haysom told reporters.

“Dr. Ghani's team has agreed to withdraw from active participation in the audit process ... The audit must be seen to be even-handed by all Afghans.”

Abdullah claims he was cheated out of victory in the 2009 presidential election against incumbent President Hamid Karzai and says history is repeating itself via massive ballot-rigging in favor of Ghani, whose camp denies the charge.

Abdullah won the first-round election in April out of a field of eight candidates, but preliminary results from the June run-off showed that he was far behind Ghani.

“Because we don't want any problems to be created, and based on the U.N. request, our team decided to withdraw from the process too,” said Ghani spokeswoman Azita Rafhat.

“We trust the U.N. and election commission, and whatever result that comes out of their audit is acceptable to us.”

Ethnic Divisions

The audit of all eight million votes was designed to strengthen the legitimacy of the next government.

But any street protests by Abdullah supporters could set off a spiral of instability that the U.N. fears would revive the divisions of the 1990s civil war.

Many of Ghani's supporters are Pashtuns in the south and east, while Abdullah's loyalists are Tajiks and other northern groups.

With both candidates claiming victory, Karzai has raised the stakes by insisting that his successor will be inaugurated next Tuesday.

“We will not join the process today, and maybe we will not rejoin the process at all,” Fazel Aqa Hussain Sancharaki, a spokesman for the Abdullah campaign, told AFP before the U.N. announcement.

Furious allies of Abdullah have pushed him to form a “parallel government,” while officials have denied reports that some current ministers planned to set up an “interim administration” to take power.

“Afghanistan faces enormous, formidable challenges ... for which it requires not only a legitimate government, but one based on the broadest level of support across the country,” said Haysom, who stressed the audit would continue.

Western nations, which have sent tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars worth of aid to Afghanistan since 2001, still hope that a credible election will be a flagship legacy of progress made since the austere Taliban era.

U.S.-led foreign troop numbers have declined from a peak of 150,000 in 2012 to just 44,300 now, with Afghan soldiers and police struggling to beat back new Taliban offensives in the south and east.

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Outgoing commander of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, first left, and incoming U.S. Army Commander of ISAF, Gen. John F. Campbell, first right, salute during a change of command ceremony at the ISAF Headquarters in Kabul on Tuesday, Aug. 26. (AP)

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