Afghan election officer quits, opens way for Abdullah to return to race

KABUL Mon Jun 23, 2014 12:15pm EDT

1 of 5. The head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) secretariat, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhil (C) leaves after a news conference in Kabul June 23, 2014. Amarkhil, a senior official of Afghanistan's IEC, stepped down on Monday amid allegations that he organised a fraudulent run-off vote, charges he denied.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammad Ismail

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who pulled out of the race alleging vote-rigging, indicated he might return after a senior election official resigned on Monday.

Abdullah, one of two candidates through to a second-round vote on June 14, had accused Independent Election Commission (IEC) Secretariat head Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhil of fraud during the ballot count.

Amarkhil denied that but resigned a day after Abdullah's party aired what it said were intercepted phone conversations in which he ordered officials to stuff ballot boxes.

"Now that the announcement was made ... the door is open for us to get to talk to the commission about conditions and circumstances which will help the process," Abdullah said.

He has previously said certain conditions must be discussed before he would return to the election, including potentially repeating the vote in some areas.

His withdrawal last week threatened to unleash an ethnic power struggle. Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban fighter, is of mixed heritage but his support base is with the Tajik community, while his election rival, ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, is an ethnic Pashtun.

At least one deadly gun battle erupted between rival supporters last week. Dozens of Abdullah's supporters protested for a third day outside the house of IEC chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani on Monday.

Nuristani said he had not asked the official to resign and Amarkhil himself said the audio recording was a fake and he was quitting "for the sake of confidence building".

"That was a fake and made-up tape to confuse public opinion," Amarkhil told reporters. "I believe in elections and I believe in justice and I believe in democracy."

FINGERS CUT

The election comes at a delicate time for Afghanistan as foreign troops prepare to quit by the end of the year, leaving behind a strong Taliban insurgency and an economic crisis.

Several Afghanis told Reuters the Taliban had cut off their fingers as punishment for voting.

"I regret voting in such a fraudulent process," said one villager at a hospital in the western Herat province, whose finger was cut off. He asked for his name to be withheld, fearing further reprisals.

"Tens of people died and hundreds more were wounded when they voted on election day. Nobody respected their sacrifices."

The Taliban, who warned Afghans to stay away from the polls, carried out hundreds of attacks on election day, killing at least 53 civilians, almost half of whom were children.

Although the Islamist group denied cutting off fingers, Reuters found near a dozen other patients at the hospital who had suffered the same injury and blamed the Taliban.

"We challenged the Taliban by casting our votes. We left our village and family but we found that nobody respects our sacrifices," said another villager, requesting anonymity.

"We voted for a good government and a developed Afghanistan but the result is an election full of fraud."

The villagers said they could not return to their homes because they feared further attacks by the Taliban. Provincial officials have said they are looking at how they can help them find alternative places to live.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan on Monday, seven soldiers were killed in the southern Zabul province when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb, the district governor said.

President Hamid Karzai, who was constitutionally unable to run for office again, has refused to sign an agreement with Washington to keep U.S. forces in the country beyond this year.

Both presidential candidates have endorsed the agreement but time is running out for the new government to sign the deal.

On Monday, two foreign servicemen were wounded when they were shot at in Paktia province, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.

(Additional reporting by Jalil Rezayee; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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