KABUL The United States warned on Tuesday that it would withdraw financial and security support from Afghanistan if anyone tried to take power illegally, as supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah rallied in Kabul for a parallel government.
Preliminary results announced on Monday gave Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, 56.44 percent in the run-off on June 14, but Abdullah immediately rejected the outcome, saying the vote had been marred by widespread fraud.
Thousands of Abdullah's supporters gathered in the capital Kabul, demanding that he form a parallel government, a move likely to plunge a country already beset by deep ethnic divisions into even greater disorder.
Underscoring the magnitude of the crisis, Abdullah said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is currently in Beijing, would visit Kabul on Friday.
In a sharp warning, Kerry said there was no justification for violence or "extra-constitutional measures".
"I have noted reports of protests in Afghanistan and of suggestions of a 'parallel government' with the gravest concern," he said in a statement issued by the U.S. embassy.
"Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community."
Afghanistan depends on foreign donors to fund everything from road building to school teachers' salaries and security. The United States pays the lion's share of all international aid.
"COUP AGAINST THE PEOPLE"
Abdullah has accused President Hamid Karzai, who is stepping down after 12 years, of helping to rig the vote in favour of Ghani, describing it as a "coup" against the people.
The standoff has quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power, a concern for the West as most of the U.S.-led foreign forces withdraw this year.
On a visit to India, British Foreign Secretary William Hague drew parallels with Iraq, where an al Qaeda offshoot has seized swathes of territory, calling on both Afghan candidates to ensure a constitutional and legitimate transfer of power.
"Iraq has suffered from a failure to have a significantly inclusive government in recent years," he said, "... and I hope Afghanistan will learn from that failure."
It is not clear whether Abdullah, who is popular among the powerful Tajik community in the north, would be able to control his supporters if the crisis escalated.
Thousands of them chanted "Death to Karzai" in Kabul on Tuesday, tearing down a large portrait of the outgoing leader and replacing it with an image of Abdullah.
At the rally, Abdullah, visibly flustered by the size of the gathering, faced a roar of slogans demanding he immediately announce his own cabinet, but told supporters to be patient.
"GIVE ME A FEW DAYS"
"We are the winners of this round of elections without any doubt," he told the crowd.
"The people of Afghanistan call on me to announce my government today. This was and is a demand from the people of Afghanistan ... We cannot ignore this call. ... Once again, I ask you to give me a few days to consult and speak."
Abdullah appeared to have softened his tone after speaking by telephone with Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama.
"John Kerry will come to Afghanistan on Friday, and their promise was that they will be next to the people of Afghanistan in defending justice, fighting against fraud and revealing fraud," Abdullah said.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
Ghani, who is backed mainly by Pashtun tribes in the south and east, sought to appear conciliatory, talking at length about Afghan unity and his respect for Abdullah.
Abdullah polled 45 percent of the vote, 14 percentage points ahead of Ghani, in the first round, when the Pashtun vote was split between several candidates.
"His Excellency Dr Abdullah is a national figure, a respected figure, so he wouldn’t lead to a parallel government," he told reporters.
"We have backed all Abdullah’s demands to recount and audit suspicious votes for the sake of transparency ... They have asked for the inspection of votes, so they should rejoin the process."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)