Kerry Tries To Calm Afghan Presidential Candidates

Kerry Tries To Calm Afghan Presidential Candidates

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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Taliban Suicide Bomber Kills 6 At Afghan Interior Ministry

Taliban Suicide Bomber Kills 6 At Afghan Interior Ministry

By Shashank Bengali and Hashmat Baktash, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — A Taliban suicide bomber managed to get past a security checkpoint Wednesday and set off his explosives at the entrance to the Afghan Interior Ministry, killing six police officers on the last day of campaigning in this country’s closely watched presidential election.

The midafternoon bombing outside one of Kabul’s most heavily guarded government installations was the latest of several major attacks that have sown fear in the Afghan capital ahead of Saturday’s contest that will determine President Hamid Karzai’s successor.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said the bomber got through at least one checkpoint on foot and then detonated the explosives near a reception area where police officers and visitors pass in and out of the complex. Four other police officers reportedly were injured.

The Interior Ministry initially said the bomber was wearing a military uniform, but Sediqqi said that information was unconfirmed.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack moments after it occurred.

Kabul’s normally traffic-clogged streets were subdued at dusk. Uniformed security personnel were stopping cars for inspections, and some residents reported that police were encouraging them to stay at home over the next couple of days, apparently due to concerns about further violence.

Shortly before the Interior Ministry blast, a Taliban spokesman issued a statement warning of more attacks aimed at derailing the election, which the insurgent group has described as a foreign plot.

Afghan officials are pressing ahead, however, and forecasting solid voter turnout based on long lines of people who sought to collect voter registration cards in recent days. Ballots and other election materials have been distributed to all 34 provinces and will arrive at polling centers, sometimes by donkey cart, by Friday evening, officials said.

“Maybe some insurgent groups want to sabotage the election, but the people of Afghanistan are keen to participate in deciding the future of their country,” Noor Mohammed Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission, said in an interview Wednesday.

As Noor spoke, however, security personnel outside his office were erecting new concrete barriers along the perimeter of the commission headquarters, which was attacked last week by insurgents who infiltrated a house a few hundred yards from the gate.

Election officials have announced that about 750 of more than 7,000 polling centers nationwide will not open due to security fears or the inability of Afghan soldiers and police to secure the locations.

The leading presidential candidates — former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasoul and 2009 presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah — held their final campaign events Wednesday around Kabul. Under Afghan law, there is to be no more campaigning until polls open Saturday morning.

AFP Photo/Abdurashid Abdulle

Afghans Free 65 Prisoners Deemed Dangerous By U.S.

Afghans Free 65 Prisoners Deemed Dangerous By U.S.

By Shashank Bengali and Hashmat Baktash, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Over strident U.S. objections, Afghanistan on Thursday released 65 prisoners whom it said it could not prosecute despite American warnings that they could return to attacking coalition forces and civilians.

The U.S. military had expected the move and denounced it in a series of press releases in recent weeks. But the Afghan government maintained that there was insufficient evidence to try the prisoners or continue to hold them at the formerly U.S.-run detention facility at Bagram, north of Kabul.

The detainee dispute has further inflamed tensions between the United States and Afghanistan in the final year of the U.S.-led military intervention. Afghan President Hamid Karzai — who has angered U.S. officials by refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow a few thousand American troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — has sharply criticized the prison at Bagram, likening it to a “factory” for creating Taliban insurgents.

The 65 prisoners released to their homes Thursday are directly linked to attacks that have killed or maimed dozens of coalition soldiers and Afghan civilians, the U.S. military alleges. They are among 88 prisoners at Bagram whom the U.S. military had argued shouldn’t be released.

The dispute has simmered since early last year, when the United States turned over the prison to Afghan control as part of its plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. U.S. officials say that Afghanistan is violating agreements by letting these prisoners go free.

“The release of these dangerous individuals poses a threat to U.S., coalition and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the Afghan population,” the U.S. military said in a statement Thursday. “Insurgents in the group released today have killed coalition and Afghan forces.”

The U.S. military even took the rare step of publicly releasing information about some of the prisoners, citing biometric data and explosives residue tests as indications that they were linked to the insurgency.

One man who was released Thursday, Mohammad Wali, captured by coalition forces in southern Helmand province in May, was described by U.S. military officials as “a suspected Taliban explosives expert” who placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and coalition forces. Another, Nek Mohammad, allegedly participated in rocket attacks against pro-government forces and was found to be possessing artillery shells, mortar rounds and at least 25 pounds of homemade explosives.

Afghan officials said they carefully reviewed the evidence and leads supplied by the United States but judged them to be insufficient to prosecute the men.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini