Afghans turn out to vote despite sporadic violence

KABUL (Reuters) - Millions of Afghans went to the polls Thursday, defying Taliban threats of violence and sporadic attacks to choose a president in the midst of a worsening war.

“The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote,” President Hamid Karzai told a news conference after polls closed.

“We’ll see what the turnout was. But they came out to vote. That’s great, that’s great.”

Preliminary results are not due for two weeks, although polling stations could begin to report sooner.

The Afghan government said nine civilians and 14 members of the security forces were killed in a total of 135 incidents countrywide on polling day.

Rockets fell on towns, especially in the south and east, and two gunmen wearing suicide vests were killed in a gunbattle in Kabul, but the Taliban failed to mount a single spectacular strike that could threaten the poll itself.

Violence in the morning tapered off as the day went on.

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“Overall, the security situation has been better than we feared. That is certainly the most positive aspect of these elections,” said Kai Eide, head of the U.N. mission in Kabul.

“The security situation has, in general, allowed people to take part in the elections,” he said.

Pre-election polls showed Karzai, in power since 2001, is likely to win but not by enough to avoid a run-off against his main challenger, his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who ran a surprisingly energetic campaign.

If Karzai fails to win more than 50 percent of the vote he will face a run-off in October, most likely against Abdullah.

The election is in large measure a referendum on Karzai, a master coalition builder who is personally liked by most Afghans but also widely blamed for running a government that is corrupt, ineffective and entirely dependent on international aid.

The president relied for votes on the endorsements of many of the country’s notorious former militia chiefs, raising alarm among his Western backers that the cost of a victory in the election could be a return of warlords to power.

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The election was also a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains. U.S. officials were clearly relieved that election-day violence had not been worse.

“Lots of people have defied threats of violence and terror to express their thoughts about the next government for the people of Afghanistan,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

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Obama’s envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in Kabul. “So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong,” Holbrooke said.

Election commission head Azizullah Ludin said 6,192 polling stations had opened, 94 percent of the number planned. Polls were kept open an extra hour because some stations had temporarily shut for security reasons during the day.

Taliban militants had repeatedly vowed to disrupt the poll. The head of the National Directorate of Security, Amrullah Saleh, said authorities thwarted plans by the fighters to attack a hotel in Kabul and a government ministry.

“The Afghan people are used to living under the worst circumstances of insecurity and fighting, why should they be afraid to come out and vote?” said Sayed Mustafa, a Kabul student, showing an ink-stained finger that proved he had voted.

Still, questions remain over turnout in the south, the most violent part of the country and the site of many of the polling day attacks. Karzai draws much of his own support from the south, and low turn-out there could increase the chance of a run-off.

U.N. officials described turnout as robust in the north but weaker in the south, although they saw signs that turnout there picked up there during the day as violence eased.

In Karzai’s southern home city of Kandahar, one of the areas that took the brunt of Taliban attacks Thursday morning, a Reuters correspondent saw queues of voters at the end of the polling day after a tentative start.

The president’s half brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, Kandahar’s provincial council chief, told Reuters people had turned out in the city in spite of threats.

“A rocket landed close to my house, killing a little boy and injuring his mother seriously,” he said by telephone. “But despite all these warnings, people don’t listen to the Taliban. Kandahar people are used to war.”

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Sayed Salahuddin, Paul Tait, David Fox and Adam Entous in KABUL, Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR, Sher Ahmad in GHAZNI, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Tait