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The U.N.-backed commission charged with investigating Afghanistan's presidential election said Tuesday that it has found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" in the results and ordered a re-count of ballots from questionable polling stations.
Widespread allegations of ballot-box stuffing and suspicious tallies are threatening the legitimacy of Afghanistan's Aug. 20 vote as the country awaits final results. More than 720 major fraud charges have been lodged with the Electoral Complaints Commission.
The commission's announcement comes with results from nearly three-quarters of polling stations already released. Incumbent President Hamid Karzai stands just shy of the 50 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a run-off election with his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah.
The commission's order to re-count some results adds to the uncertainty surrounding the vote. A credible election is seen as critical to the Western-backed efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and win public support for the fight against the Taliban insurgency.
The commission did not say how many polling stations would require re-counts, but it noted that it had so far identified some with questionable results in Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces, and that it is launching investigations in other provinces.
Stations showing 100 percent turnout or with a presidential candidate receiving more than 95 percent of the vote will need to be audited and recounted, the commission said in a statement. Stations with fewer than 100 ballots will be exempt from the process.
The commission, comprised of three international members and two Afghans, has the power to order a re-count of any ballots with strong indications of irregularities. The international members are appointed by the U.N. and the Afghans by the Afghan Supreme Court and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
The Afghan election commission, a separate body that runs the entire election process, has so far thrown out votes from 447 stations - about 200,000 ballots - because of fraud, officials said.
"The numbers were suspicious and the results did not match with the reconciliation form" used to double-check results, said Daoud Ali Najafi, the chief electoral officer of the Afghan body, the Independent Election Commission.
"In some areas the turnout was higher than the number of ballots we sent to the polling station," Najafi added. He said the ballots have been sent to the U.N.-backed complaint commission, which will decide if any can eventually be included in the official count.
The top U.N. representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, called on Afghan election officials to exclude ballots from the vote count that have "evidence of irregularities."
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met with Karzai on Monday and talked about the election, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden. She declined to provide further details.
With results from 74 percent of polling stations released so far, Karzai has 48.6 percent with about 2.1 million votes. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has 31.7 percent, or 1.4 million votes. Karzai needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff.
Najafi said he did not have a regional breakdown of the discarded results, but said investigation teams have been sent to Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces.
A senior Western diplomat alleged Monday that a majority of the votes in three provinces - Kandahar, Paktika and Khost - are fraudulent. Partial returns from each of those provinces heavily favor Karzai. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work. Others have said there have been as many as 800 fake polling sites from which tallies came in.
Najafi said it was unlikely that 800 polling stations were faked, and said the most recent number of fraud-annulled stations he had was the 447 announced Sunday.
About 4.3 million votes have been tallied so far, but some 224,000 were thrown out because the candidate had withdrawn or because of problems with the ballot like a vote cast for not one but two presidential candidates. The discarding of the additional 200,000 votes for fraud means at least 424,000 votes are not being included in the final tally.
This program aired on September 8, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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