KABUL President Hamid Karzai's campaign and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah both said on Friday they had won Afghanistan's election, with U.S. officials warning the candidates to keep a lid on simmering tensions.
Both camps said unofficial counts by campaign workers showed they had won enough votes from Thursday's election, which went ahead despite Taliban threats of violence, to avoid a potentially destabilizing second round of voting in October.
The election is a major test for Karzai after eight years in office, as well as for U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.
Karzai's campaign manager, Deen Mohammad, said early results showed Karzai had won a majority. "We will not get to a second round," he told Reuters.
Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, dismissed the Karzai camp's victory claim and said he was on track to win in the first round after Thursday's vote, which went ahead despite sporadic Taliban violence.
"I'm ahead. Initial results from the provinces show that I have more than 50 percent of the vote," Abdullah told Reuters.
Official preliminary results are not due for two weeks.
Obama, who has sent thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, praised the vote as a move in the right direction. But he warned that Taliban violence may continue as official results are finalized.
"Over the last few days, particularly yesterday, we've seen acts of violence and intimidation by the Taliban, and there ... may be more in the days to come," he said at the White House.
Election observers say a second round between Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, and Abdullah, who draws support from Tajiks in the north, risked dividing the country along ethnic lines, and that disagreement over the outcome could lead to civil unrest.
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said he was sure the outcome would be disputed and told candidates to keep a lid on tensions.
"We always knew it would be a disputed election. I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days," said Holbrooke, who met Karzai and Abdullah in Kabul on Friday.
Abdullah urged "calmness, patience, a sense of responsibility" from his supporters. "Violence should be avoided in any circumstances," he told Reuters at his home in Kabul.
Polls conducted before the election showed Karzai in the lead but suggested he would not gain the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off.
SIGH OF RELIEF
Afghan and U.S. officials breathed a sigh of relief after the relatively peaceful election, which had been marked by a dramatic escalation in violence in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The 6,200 polling stations are required to make their results available to the public as they tabulate them to prevent fraud.
Zekria Barakzai, deputy head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), urged patience.
"We cannot confirm any claims by campaigning managers. It's the job of the election commission to declare the results. They should be patient," Barakzai said.
An independent Afghan monitoring body, FEFA, said it was concerned about the quality of the poll after receiving reports from its observers across the country of fraud and interference.
The International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based group that monitors elections, said Thursday's vote was marked by "serious problems," but had so far been credible.
Barakzai said two convoys of election workers transporting ballot boxes had been attacked following the vote. In one case, in Balkh province in the north, an election worker was killed and ballots that had already been counted were burned.
He said preliminary figures showed overall turnout was around 40-50 percent, roughly in line with estimates by Western diplomats before the poll, compared with a turnout of about 70 percent of registered voters in the 2004 presidential poll.
Much is likely to depend on turnout in southern areas, such as Karzai's home province of Kandahar, where the president draws his strongest support but where voters faced the brunt of Taliban attacks and intimidation.
Abdullah's spokesman, Fazl Sangcharaki, said the north had voted solidly for Abdullah, except in Jowzjan province, home of Uzbek militia chieftain Abdul Rashid Dostum, who returned to the country days before the vote to campaign for Karzai.
Western backers have expressed concern about Karzai's tactic of seeking support from former militia chiefs, afraid that deals made to secure votes could bring warlords back to power.
U.S. combat casualties have risen sharply amid a U.S. troop buildup and opinion polls have shown weakening American backing for the war.
Three U.S. troops were killed in roadside bomb and mortar attacks in the east and two British soldiers were killed in an explosion in southern Helmand on Thursday, the military said.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous in KABUL and Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by David Fox and Phil Stewart)