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By Shashank Bengali and Hashmat Baktash, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Secretary of State John F. Kerry held urgent meetings Friday with both presidential candidates in Afghanistan in a bid to resolve a messy election dispute that threatens to unravel years of U.S. efforts to build a fledgling democracy.

Kerry met separately with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul in a hastily arranged visit that underscored the Obama administration’s concerns that the political impasse could turn violent. Both men have claimed victory in the election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term.

The crisis escalated Monday when election officials announced initial results from a June 14 run-off vote that gave a large and surprising lead to Ghani, a former finance minister, after he finished well behind Abdullah in the first round of balloting in April. Abdullah has alleged widespread fraud and accused election officials of conspiring with Ghani’s campaign and Karzai’s office to rig the results.

Both men believe they have won the race and are haggling over the terms of a partial recount of ballots over the next two weeks.

“The results that were announced on Monday are preliminary; they are neither authoritative nor final, and no one should be stating a victory at this point in time,” Kerry said before meeting with Abdullah.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan announced a proposal for an expanded audit of votes that would include thousands of ballot boxes where Western officials believe the chances for fraud and ballot-box stuffing were high. They include ballot boxes that were returned with more than 595 ballots, female-only ballot boxes that were staffed by male election workers, certain voting sites where votes from women exceeded those from men, and ballot boxes where the votes received by either candidate totaled a multiple of 50, starting with 100.

Under those terms, some 8,050 ballot boxes would be audited, or more than one-third of the total. The U.N. said that represents 3.5 million votes, far above the 1 million-vote margin Ghani holds in the initial results, and more than enough to swing the election in either direction.

Ghani’s campaign had reportedly acceded to the U.N. proposal in meetings Thursday, but Abdullah’s camp was believed to be holding out for an even wider audit of up to 11,000 ballot boxes.

Abdullah did not comment publicly on the U.N. plan but said in brief remarks before meeting Kerry that he hoped “all of us will utilize the precious time of your presence here in the best interests of our country.”

Ghani, who has told supporters he is confident of victory, said he favored “the most intensive and extensive audit possible.”

“Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy that the people of Afghanistan and the world will believe,” Ghani said.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India, and special correspondent Baktash from Kabul.

AFP Photo / Jim Bourg

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