KABUL (Reuters) - With early results on Tuesday showing Afghanistan’s presidential race neck-and-neck, a massive truck bomb that killed 40 civilians and wounded 60 in Kandahar showed the scale of problems facing the eventual winner.
The blast took place shortly after dusk as Afghans across the country were breaking their daily fast in the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
There was confusion over whether the explosion was from one big truck bomb or a series of smaller, simultaneous devices. A Reuters witness saw a restaurant set ablaze and a shop and several houses flattened.
Provincial Governor Ahmed Wali Karzai told Reuters that 40 people were killed and more than 60 wounded, all civilians.
Four U.S. servicemen were killed by a roadside bomb elsewhere in the south, NATO and the U.S. military said, making 2009 the deadliest year for the growing contingent of foreign troops in eight years of war.
Earlier, the first partial results from last Thursday’s election had President Hamid Karzai and his main rival running neck-and-neck, suggesting a close race headed for a second round.
The country has been in political limbo since the vote, with Karzai and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah each claiming victory. Abdullah and other challengers have accused Karzai and the authorities of widespread fraud.
The elections are a major test for Karzai after eight years in power and for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has poured in thousands of extra troops as part of his new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.
The partial election results, based on 10 percent of votes counted, gave Karzai a slight edge with 41 percent against 39 percent for Abdullah, his former foreign minister — a difference of about 10,000 out of about 524,000 valid votes counted.
Election officials warned against drawing conclusions about the final count from the initial samples. They promise to provide daily updates but the complete count is not due until Sept 3.
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke urged caution, saying the early results were misleading.
“You don’t call it with 10 percent. It’s too early to call,” Holbrooke, who left Afghanistan on Monday, told reporters in Turkey.
Behind the two leaders, Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority who ran a quixotic campaign from a tent across the street from parliament, placed third with around 11 percent. Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani won 3 percent.
Speaking after the announcement of first results, Abdullah said it was too early to draw any conclusions, but he would not accept any outcome affected by major fraud.
“The main issue is whether we should accept the big fraud to decide the outcome of the elections. Big fraud, whatever is the outcome, I will not accept,” Abdullah said.
“It should come out and those who are responsible should be dealt with according to the law,” he told Reuters at his home in Kabul.
Abdullah said his camp had lodged some 200 complaints with the election complaints commission.
Karzai was not immediately available for comment.
The results also suggest a disappointing turnout of only around 5 million votes in a country of some 30 million people and an estimated 15 million eligible voters.
Taliban fighters had launched attacks and threatened reprisals against voters during the election, scaring many Afghans away from the polls, especially in the violent south.
More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan this year, most part of a package of reinforcements ordered by Obama in May in response to a growing Taliban insurgency.
More than 100,000 Western troops are now in the country, 63,000 of them Americans.
The number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year now stands at 295, according to icasualties.org, a website which compiles official figures. Last year, 294 died.
The U.S. reinforcements sent by Obama, along with a British contingent already deployed in the south, have advanced deep into formerly Taliban-held territory, taking heavy casualties mainly from roadside bombs. More Western troops have died since March than in the entire period from 2001-2004.