KABUL – The runner-up in Afghanistan's unsettled presidential election said Thursday he has faith in a U.N.-backed panel working to determine if there are enough fraudulent votes to force a runoff, but stopped short of saying he would accept its results.
"I will reserve my full reaction post-announcement," former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told reporters at his home in the capital, Kabul.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission is expected to rule within days on fraud allegations stemming from the Aug. 20 vote, which was marred by charges of ballot-stuffing and voter coercion, mostly to President Hamid Karzai's benefit.
Preliminary results show Karzai won re-election with about 54.6 percent of the vote, but the commission could discard enough fraudulent ballots to drop his tally below 50 percent and force a second round.
The two-month delay without a clear winner has left Afghanistan in limbo as the Taliban-led insurgency in the countryside deepens and the Obama administration debates its Afghan strategy.
Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Thursday he did not expect there would be a runoff.
"If that process remains technical, remains transparent and remains accountable, we do not see a chance for the elections to go to a second round," Omar said. He said he based his comment on reports from Karzai representatives who observed the opening and examining of ballot boxes.
Abdullah said he had concerns over the complaint commission's methodology for probing fraudulent votes, but that "we have to have faith in something."
"Hopefully .... we will see that the ugly picture of fraud is excluded from the results in the outcome," Abdullah said. "The people of Afghanistan will pass another historic chapter and look forward to the future, which will be hopefully based on the rule of law not on fraud."
Both candidates rejected rumors that they might agree to some sort of power-sharing deal or coalition government rather than risk a runoff that will likely be plagued by more violence and could be hampered in the north by winter snow that cuts off mountain villages.
A U.N. spokesman in Kabul also dismissed the idea that alternatives to a runoff were being pushed by the international community.
"We are meeting with the candidates and their campaign teams regularly, but this is part of our efforts to keep them updated on progress with the elections, and any future government will be decided by the winning candidates and not anybody from the international community," Aleem Siddique said.
On Thursday, Afghan and NATO forces clashed with militants in eastern Afghanistan, killing several insurgents, U.S. military and provincial officials said.
The Zabul provincial police chief, Abdul Rahman Surjung, said 14 militants were killed in Zabul province's Bahar district and another eight in Argandab district overnight.
A U.S. forces spokeswoman confirmed the Bahar fighting and another battle in Wardak province, both sparked when the joint Afghan-NATO forces came under fire while searching for Taliban commanders. Capt. Regina Gillis said fewer than 10 militants were killed in the two operations.
An Italian soldier died Thursday from wounds sustained when his vehicle tipped over while traveling on an unstable road, the Italian military said. Two other soldiers on board were bruised in the accident near Herat in the west.a