Afghan prosecutor announces new election probe

Afghanistan's top prosecutor announced a new investigation Wednesday into allegations of ballot manipulation, potentially dealing another setback to a fraud-marred parliamentary election just as many had hoped a declaration of final results would allow the country to move on.

The Afghan election commission, meanwhile, certified tallies from 33 of 34 provinces but failed to deliver on a promise to provide complete results more than two months after the Sept. 18 poll.

The election panel said it had not decided what to do about the eastern province of Ghazni, where a host of problems clouded the ballot even after substantial investigations. Other than the delay in the Ghazni results, the winners were unchanged since fraud investigators announced a number of disqualified candidates earlier this week.

The twin developments were the latest problems to overshadow the balloting that has been seen as a test of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's commitment to reforming his corruption-ridden government since he was re-elected last year in a vote that was itself heavily tainted by fraud. The allegations last year nearly undermined the legitimacy of Karzai's government and pushed some NATO countries to threaten to pull troops and aid.

Amid the political uncertainty, violence has been on the rise in Afghanistan.

Insurgents killed five village elders in an ambush Wednesday in northern Afghanistan, NATO reported, underscoring fears that violence is spreading from more volatile areas.

The men were traveling through Faryab province, which borders Turkmenistan when their vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, the alliance said in a statement. Four other elders were wounded in the attack.

While Taliban influence in the north and west is not as pervasive as in the movement's southern heartland, the insurgency has been slowly expanding its presence in areas such as Kunduz, Faryab and Baghlan since 2007, mostly among Pashtuns who are a minority in northern parts of the country.

A bomb also killed a NATO service member Wednesday in the south, raising to 46 the number of NATO troop deaths so far this month.

Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Alako announced the investigation into ballot fraud in an address to parliament that was broadcast on Afghan television.

He alleged that the election was bought and sold by powerful, well-connected Afghans through secret dealings in Dubai.

"The decision about the Afghan election has been made in Dubai and in Kabul's foreign exchange market," Alako said, without elaborating. "I have evidence and documents and I am going to investigate. If no one accepts my investigation, I will not come to my job again."

Alako also said he had suspended the spokesmen for the nation's two main independent electoral bodies for making irresponsible comments to the media. Both spokesmen said they had not received any notice of suspension.

The attorney general's office is charged with investigating allegations of criminal activity in the election. Alako did not provide specifics, but his comments suggest that he is planning to investigate the legitimacy of the entire process.

By throwing into question the decisions of election officials, Alako's statement could cast doubt on the long-awaited results.

Alako had threatened investigations into top officials previously, but appeared to have backed off after an outcry from electoral officials and from the United Nations that he was overstepping his authority.

Alako — who has squashed investigations into corruption in the executive branch — is generally seen as backing the president, though it was unclear if he was acting with the permission of the executive branch or on his own.

Last year's presidential runner-up blamed the government.

"The government blatantly interfered in the work of the commissions by asking the attorney general's office to interfere," Abdullah Abdullah said.

The parliamentary results, released just ahead of President Barack Obama's December Afghan review, come at a time when NATO and its allies need the Karzai government to be seen as a strong partner.

Abdullah Ahmadzai, a member of the election commission, said the panel had to decide between certifying and announcing the current results in Ghazni or ordering a revote for the province, where many polling stations were closed, others were excluded because of fraud and turnout was almost nonexistent in some districts.

As a result, no candidates from the majority Pashtun ethnic group won seats — a potentially inflammatory result in an already volatile province. Instead all 11 winning candidates are ethnic Hazaras, who tend to live in safer areas.

Ahmadzai added that a rerun, if needed, might not happen immediately, saying it could be suspended indefinitely until security in the province improves.

Election commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi promised a decision within a week.

The September poll was plagued by allegations of fraud and voter intimidation countrywide. Election officials discarded 1.3 million ballots — nearly a quarter of the total — for fraud and disqualified 19 winning candidates for cheating.

All these measures were backed by the country's election fraud watchdog — the Electoral Complaints Commission, which is supposed to be the final arbiter on cheating and misconduct in elections.

If Alako's investigation goes forward, it will be the third examination of ballots from the parliamentary poll. The election organizers first excluded about 1.3 million ballots — nearly a quarter of the total — for fraud. Then the Electoral Complaints Commission disqualified 19 winning candidates for misconduct and threw out ballots from hundreds more polling stations earlier this week.

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Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.