Panel Begins Probing Afghan Vote Complaints

Foreign election experts on Wednesday trawled through a raft of complaints from candidates in Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election, quarantining suspect ballot boxes and further delaying the count.

Despite the problems, a top U.S. general said Saturday's vote "spells the end" of the rule of the gun in a country still controlled by warlords.

With ballot boxes pouring in by road, air and even donkey from across the rugged and impoverished land, officials had forecast that the counting could begin on Wednesday.

But a three-person panel set up to investigate alleged irregularities said Wednesday they were still examining 43 objections made by some opponents of President Hamid Karzai (search) and the tallying cannot start until all the complaints are reviewed.

Craig Jenness, a Canadian lawyer who is one of the panelists, said the body had recommended that ballot boxes from 10 sites in four provinces be isolated.

Jenness did not say when the review would be complete but said counting would begin "very quickly" afterward.

He said candidates had until Thursday to file additional complaints, but that vote-counting would not be held up further.

Karzai is widely tipped to secure a clear victory over the 15 other candidates when final results are announced toward the end of the month.

The establishment of the panel appeased Karzai's opponents, who had threatened to reject the result.

Election staff were supposed to mark voters' left thumbs with indelible ink, but some apparently used pens meant for marking the ballots or ink meant for stamping them instead.

The wrong ink was easily washed off, opening the way to claims of multiple voting. Election organizers had issued 10.5 million registration cards, far more than expected, fueling concern that some people had obtained several.

A spokesman for ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said he also had filed written complaints to the panel about polling stations running out of ballot papers and a dearth of voting centers in west Kabul, where many Hazaras live.

Meanwhile, eight people stranded for 24 hours since a helicopter sent to retrieve ballots crash-landed at high altitude in northeastern Afghanistan were rescued Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said.

The rescue helicopter was reassigned to pick up ballots from remote Badakhshan province, though it was unclear when the collection would be complete.

While the complaints from many candidates have raised questions about the legitimacy of the eventual outcome, the election has been a clear triumph for the massive security operation mounted to protect it from militant attack.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the lack of major violence and the enthusiastic turnout were a "resounding defeat" for Taliban (search) and Al Qaeda (search) rebels.

"This turning point spells the end of more than two decades of the rule of the gun in this nation and confirms the bright hope of all the Afghan people in a democratic future centered on the rule of law," he told reporters in Kabul.

The upbeat assessment came as NATO defense ministers met in Romania to consider issues including merging U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan with the alliance's separate contingent.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns suggested Tuesday that the alliance could take over the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan as early as 2005, prompting Germany's defense minister to quickly reject the proposal.

Barno, who commands 18,000 mainly American troops here, said the timeline for such a merger was "uncertain," but forecast that U.S. forces would play a "very, very large role and have a large percentage" of any combined force.

NATO is already expected to extend its 9,000-strong Afghan operation, which is focused on bolstering the Afghan government and its re-emerging national security forces, from the capital and the north to the west next year.

But with much of the country still in the grip of warlords and about 1,000 people killed in political violence so far this year, alliance leaders have struggled to persuade member nations to commit extra troops.

Barno wouldn't say when the number of U.S.-led troops might drop.

Combat operations would need to continue against anti-government militants, he said, warning of a possible "spike" in violence during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

"Coalition forces for the foreseeable future will certainly maintain their role here," he said.