Pro-Western politician leads vote in Afghanistan, but he will face a runoff

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A pro-Western candidate has emerged from Afghanistan's April 5 presidential contest with the most votes but still must compete in a runoff election, Afghan election officials said Saturday.

After three weeks of counting, the Independent Election Commission unveiled the final results of the country's third presidential race since the 2001 U.S.-backed invasion to dislodge the Taliban.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who was a top opposition leader during the tenure of outgoing President Hamid Karzai, was the leading vote-getter with 44.9 percent. Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, came in second with 31.5 percent.

Zalmay Rassoul, widely considered Mr. Karzai's favored candidate, received 11.5 percent of the vote.

Barring a major change when results are certified May 14, Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani will move on to a second round of balloting because neither received at least 50 percent of the vote, officials said.

Both are viewed as moderate and have pledged to work with the United States to keep up the pressure on the Taliban and other militant groups. But Mr. Abdullah, who would be the first ethnic Tajik to lead Afghanistan since 1996, has been particularly open about his hope for improved ties with the United States.

Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the IEC's chairman, said the runoff is tentatively slated for June 7. Yet there was uncertainty Saturday about whether Mr. Ghani will challenge the results of the April 5 contest.

Ghani adviser Hamidullah Farooqi said the results included hundreds of thousands of potentially fraudulent votes in addition to the 234,674 votes already under IEC review because of concerns about ballot security. He said the campaign will detail its allegations in the coming days.

Mr. Abdullah has appeared more comfortable with the prospect of a runoff. Four years ago, when he was due to meet Mr. Karzai in a runoff, he abruptly dropped out of the race to protest what he called a corrupted electoral process. Now, however, he says the runoff must take place to ensure the integrity of Afghanistan's new democracy.

Despite repeated threats from the Taliban and concerns about security, IEC officials said nearly 7 million ballots were cast, a turnout of about 60 percent. Sixty-four percent of votes came from men and 36 percent from women, the officials said.

If the runoff is held in early June, that would be good news for U.S. officials, who had worried that the process could drag on well into the summer.

Mr. Karzai, who is leaving office after two terms, has refused to sign a security agreement with the United States to allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year. Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani both support the agreement, but some U.S. officials fear that a protracted campaign would complicate Pentagon planning for the post-2014 mission.

Also on Saturday, five NATO troops were killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan, the deadliest day for the U.S.-led coalition in at least four months.

Britain's Defense Ministry said in a statement that a British helicopter had crashed. The ministry declined to comment on the nationalities of the victims, but British media reported that all are thought to be Britons.

According to Afghan officials, the helicopter crashed about 11 a.m. local time in Kandahar province. In a text message to The Associated Press, a Taliban spokesman said the group had shot down the aircraft, but the Taliban frequently make claims about casualties that are later shown to be false and often take credit for downing planes that crashed because of mechanical issues.

The crash appears to have resulted in the greatest loss of life for the coalition in a single incident since Dec. 17, when six U.S. troops were killed after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan's Zabul province.



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