KABUL Afghanistan's rival presidential campaigns were holding last-ditch talks on Wednesday to rescue a deal on a national government after a disputed election raised fears of exacerbating ethnic divisions.
Presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah extended a Tuesday deadline to disengage from the political process to allow international efforts to salvage the U.S-brokered deal under which the two sides also agreed to accept the results of a U.N.-supervised vote audit, his camp said.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister who draws most of his support from the minority Tajiks and Hazara communities centered largely in the north and the center, is locked in a feud with rival candidate Ashraf Ghani, a member of Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.
Abdullah, who was a runner-up in the runoff election results on June 14, has already withdrawn from the vote audit saying it was not being done strictly enough to weed out tens of thousands of fraudulent vote.
On Monday, his running mate, Mohammad Mohaqeq, told Reuters that talks with the Ghani campaign on a power-sharing deal for a unity government had also failed with no agreement on the powers of a newly created chief executive.
But on Wednesday, the Abdullah camp said the United States had launched a new effort to rescue the accord brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry to give the losing side a share of power and stop Afghanistan from a return to the sort of ethnic animosity seen during a civil war in the 1990s.
"Talks are underway, we are optimistic," said Mahmoud Saiqal, a top aide to Abdullah. A new four-member committee from the two camps has been set up to find common ground on the role of a chief executive to share powers with the president.
Abdullah and Ghani, a former finance minister, also met President Hamid Karzai who has been pushing for an early transition to a successor in what will be Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power, Mujib Rahimi, a spokesman for Abdullah said.
The moves came after the Abdullah campaign said it would pull out of the process if its demands were not met by Tuesday and a powerful northern ally, Atta Mohammad Noor, threatened to launch mass protests which he called a "green and orange" movement.
His spokesman Munir Farhad said green denoted peaceful street protests that would culminate in taking over government buildings in a parallel to the orange revolution in Ukraine.
The deadlock comes as the United States, Kabul's biggest aid donor, and other NATO nations withdraw their troops after nearly 13 years of fighting Taliban insurgents.
It also takes the shine off a NATO summit in Wales beginning on Thursday where the 28-nation alliance hoped to celebrate Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power by inviting a new president to share the spotlight with U.S. President Barack Obama and the other allied leaders.
The U.S. State Department, in a statement on Tuesday, said Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Doug Frantz was in Kabul and would hold talks with Afghan leaders.
"He plans to convey the administration's full support for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power and emphasize the priority Secretary Kerry places on an audit process that ensures a legitimate outcome and agreement on the details of a government of national unity," it said.
Under the terms of the deal agreed during a visit by Kerry in July, the runner-up in the presidential election will appoint a chief executive to share control with the president over some major decisions, such as nominating the heads of the security forces.
But it was left to the two campaigns to work out the specifics of power-sharing. Mohaqeq told Reuters the Ghani camp was behaving as if it had won the election and wanted to limit the role of the chief executive to a symbolic position.
(Additional reporting by Krista Mahr; Editing by Robert Birsel)