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'Concerns' over Afghan elections

The main Afghan election observer group has serious concerns about the legitimacy of the parliamentary polls because of reported fraud, even as President Hamid Karzai commended the balloting as a solid success.

The conflicting statements underscore the difficulty of determining the credibility of the vote also hit by militant attacks that hurt the turnout. Afghan officials started gathering and tallying results on Sunday in a process that could take weeks if not months to complete.

The country's international backers offered praise for those who voted despite bomb and rocket attacks, and voiced hoped for a democratic result. A repeat of the pervasive fraud that tainted a presidential election a year ago would only erode further the standing of Karzai administration - both at home and abroad - as it struggles against a Taliban insurgency.

While the first vote counts are due to be made public in a few days time, full preliminary results are not expected until early October, and then there will be weeks of fraud investigations before winners are officially announced for the 249 parliamentary seats, which were contested by about 2,500 candidates.

The election commission has said it hopes to release final results by the end of October. But there are likely to be a host of fraud complaints in each province - which could drag the process on even beyond that target date. The resolution of last year's vote took months.

On Sunday, the independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said it "has serious concerns about the quality of elections", given the insecurity and numerous complaints of fraud. The organisation deployed about 7,000 people around the country, making it the largest observer of the parliamentary vote. Many international observer groups scaled back their operations from last year because of security concerns.

At least 21 civilians and nine police officers were killed during the voting, according to the election commission and the interior ministry, amid dozens of bombings and rocket attacks. In addition, two pollworkers were kidnapped in northern Balkh province and their bodies discovered on Sunday, Afghan election commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi told reporters.

The election commission has yet to provide an overall turnout figure but it appears to have been lower than last year. The commission said at least four million people voted - at least 24% of the country's 17 million registered voters - though they were still waiting for reports from some voting centres. Nearly six million ballots were cast last year, though the widespread ballot-box stuffing means it was difficult to know how many people actually voted.

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