- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | President Hamid Karzai extended his lead over his top challenger in Afghanistan’s presidential election, new vote results showed Wednesday, but remains short of the 50 percent threshold that would allow him to avoid a two-man runoff.

Afghan election officials are slowly releasing results from last week’s presidential election, and final certified results will not be ready until at least mid-September, after dozens of serious complaints of fraud have been investigated.

Low voter turnout and the fraud allegations have cast a pall over the vote, seen as critical to efforts to stabilize the country, which is wracked by Taliban insurgents and doubts over its fragile democracy. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has accused Mr. Karzai of widespread rigging, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, claims Mr. Karzai’s camp has denied.

The latest returns boost Mr. Karzai’s standing to 44.8 percent. Mr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, now has 35.1 percent. The count is based on returns from 17 percent of polling stations nationwide, meaning the results could still change dramatically. Tuesday’s returns had Mr. Abdullah trailing Mr. Karzai by 3 percent.

The presidential returns announced Wednesday are based on partial results from 28 of the 34 provinces, but few votes have been counted from Kandahar and no votes from neighboring Helmand province, two areas that would boost Mr. Karzai’s totals.

NATO said two U.S. troops died Wednesday in two separate attacks, keeping August on pace to be the deadliest month of the war for the U.S. military. The two deaths bring to 43 the number of U.S. troops killed this month. Last month was the deadliest of the war, when 45 U.S. troops died.

On Tuesday night, a huge bombing hit the main southern city of Kandahar, killing at least 43 people and wounding 65. The attack, which destroyed dozens of buildings, took place in a district that includes U.N. facilities and an Afghan intelligence office. Rescue workers were still pulling injured people from the ruins early Wednesday.

An Afghan employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was among the dead.

The Interior Ministry said the blast was from remote-controlled explosives planted in a truck, although local officials had said earlier a cluster of five vehicle bombs caused the blast.

The Taliban on Wednesday denied any responsibility for the attack in Kandahar - the Islamist movement’s spiritual home.

“We are denying responsibility, and condemn this attack in which innocent civilians were killed,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi wrote in a text message sent to an Associated Press reporter.

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