Afghan poll crisis deepens as Abdullah claims victory

* Thousands of rowdy Abdullah supporters rally in Kabul, demand he declare ‘parallel government’ to rule country * Standoff quashes hopes of smooth transition of power

KABUL: Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory on Tuesday in Afghanistan’s disputed election, blaming fraud for putting him behind in preliminary results as fears rise of instability and ethnic unrest.
Abdullah told a rally of thousands of rowdy supporters in Kabul he would fight on to win the presidency, but he called for patience from loyalists who demanded he declare a ‘parallel government’ to rule the country.
“We are proud, we respect the votes of the people, we were the winner,” Abdullah said. “Without any doubt or hesitation, we will not accept a fraudulent result, not today, not tomorrow, never.”
Before he spoke, a huge photograph of President Hamid Karzai was ripped down from the stage - underlining the boiling anger among Abdullah’s supporters after Monday’s preliminary result in favour of poll rival Ashraf Ghani.
The election standoff has sparked concern that protests could spiral into ethnic violence and even lead to a return to the fighting between warlords that ravaged Afghanistan during the 1992-1996 civil war.
Both Abdullah and Ghani called for the country to remain united as it faces a difficult transfer of power at the same time that 50,000 US-led NATO troops wind down their battle against Taliban and aid money declines.
“Afghanistan’s unity is never in question,” Ghani, a former World Bank economist, told reporters.
“We accept the preliminary result of the election, and I ask all my countrymen to patiently wait for the final results.
“Our votes are clean and will pass any auditing.”
President Karzai, the United Nations and the United States all called for candidates to respect the election timetable, which allows for auditing and complaints before the official result is released on about July 24.
“The results are not final and are subject to change, and... it would be premature for either of the candidates to claim victory,” the UN mission in Afghanistan said, in an apparent criticism of Abdullah.
The mission urged both campaigns to prevent supporters “from taking steps that could lead to civil disorder and instability.”
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office, has stayed publicly neutral in the lengthy election, but Abdullah supporters accuse him of fixing the run-off vote in Ghani’s favour.
The president, who came to power after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, welcomed the result announcements, but said the winner would be known only “after complaints are addressed and genuine votes separated”.
Independent Election Commission head Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani admitted on Monday there had been fraud by the security forces and senior government officials.
Before Monday’s result, the two rival teams were in intense negotiations over the extent of a proposed fraud probe to check thousands of the most suspicious ballot boxes.
Abdullah’s supporters took the street 10 days ago when reports emerged that Ghani was well ahead in the vote count, though protests have so far been peaceful.
Ghani attracts much of his support from the Pashtun tribes of the south and east, while Abdullah’s vote base is among the Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups - echoing the ethnic divisions of the civil war. 

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