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Allgeations of Afghan Voter Fraud Grow

KABUL - Afghan presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost jumped out of his chair Sunday when he saw the news photographers and started yelling at election officials who were tallying votes in a warehouse.

"Some documents have no serial numbers," he shouted, pointing at a stack of papers.

Soon representatives of another candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and of President Hamid Karzai entered the fray, screaming and gesturing. Startled workers kept their heads down and continued to examine documents.

There are no hanging chads, but Afghanistan's electoral process is starting to resemble the Florida recount effort in 2000 even before preliminary results are announced Tuesday. Afghanistan's second presidential election since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001 has created political uncertainty as officials attempt to count the votes amid fraud allegations from all sides.

Election officials say it will take weeks to sort through the ballots and investigate the allegations before knowing who the next president is.

About 225 complaints have been filed with Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, including 35 serious enough to sway the results if confirmed, the commission announced Sunday. The serious allegations concern intimidation and stuffing of ballot boxes. Many more complaints, from voters and campaigns, are likely to be filed as ballot boxes come in from around the country.

"We anticipate hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints," Scott Worden, an electoral complaints commissioner, said in an interview Sunday. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, there were 1,500 complaints.

Election officials caution that the vote tally and investigation into possible fraud will take time. "What we don't want is there to be confusion," Worden said.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, said allegations of vote rigging and fraud are to be expected, but it's too soon to question the legitimacy of the vote.

"We have disputed elections in the United States. There may be some questions here. That wouldn't surprise me at all. I expect it," Holbrooke told AP Television News in the western city of Herat. "But let's not get out ahead of the situation."

He said the U.S. and other countries "will respect the process set up by Afghanistan itself."

Mohammad Farid Afghanzai, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission, said he could not estimate what percentage of the vote would be known by Tuesday when the commission starts releasing results. Some voting materials have yet to arrive in Kabul from remote mountain villages, where donkeys were used to deliver ballots before the election. On Sunday, trucks with tally sheets and ballot boxes rolled into an elections commission compound outside Kabul.

In the warehouse, workers entered numbers from handwritten tally sheets into computers. Candidates or their representatives could watch the process but were not allowed to interfere.

Complete, unofficial results should be announced in about two weeks, with the vote being certified around Sept. 17 after the commission completes investigating fraud allegations. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the top two contenders will be in a runoff.

Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah, continued to level fraud charges at Karzai's government and said he will use the next several weeks to press his claims with the complaints commission.

"I'll fight until the last vote," Abdullah told USA TODAY.

Turnout was low in many parts of the country, particularly in the south, where the U.S. military is mounting a major offensive against Taliban strongholds.

Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, said the Taliban spent millions of dollars to disrupt Thursday's vote. He said there were about 135 security incidents on election day, about three times the usual level.

Azimi acknowledged that the violence and threats dampened turnout. "But it wasn't at the level to undermine the legitimacy of the election," he said.

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