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Afghanistan vote counting underway after landmark election

The United Nations has praised Afghanistan voters for turning out en masse despite threats of violence by the Taliban. Despite several deadly clashes, the vote has been hailed as a success.

The United Nations Security Council urged all involved in Afghanistan's election to show patience and respect during the vote counting, which continued into Monday.

The Security Council praised "the courage of the Afghan people to cast their ballots despite the threat and intimidation by the Taliban and other extremist and terrorist groups."

Early estimates of voter turnout indicated that more than seven million ballots were cast on Saturday, as polling places stayed opened for an extra hour and additional ballot papers were issued to cope with the long lines. It's estimated about 13 million people were eligible to vote for Afghanistan's next president, a successor to Hamid Karzai, putting the estimated voter turnout at over 50 percent. People also voted for provincial councils.

"This has truly been an election led by Afghans, secured by Afghans, for the future of Afghans," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, praising the voters' enthusiasm and the work of Afghanistan's security forces.

Following the closing of polls Saturday, US President Barack Obama said the election represented "another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down forces."

Fears of fraud

Ballot boxes from Afghanistan's 34 provinces were being transported to counting centers on Sunday, some by truck and donkey over mountainous terrain.

Officials have urged patience with the vote count, as candidates have expressed concerns about voter fraud, which marred the 2009 election.

Complaints about a shortage of ballots, meaning some potential voters missed out, and claims of ballot-stuffing have been registered with the independent Election Complaints Commission, according to presidential candidates.

Eight boxes full of votes were destroyed on Sunday when a roadside bomb hit a truck transporting them to from polling stations to Kunduz city in the country's north. The blast killed three people: an election observer, a police officer and the truck's driver.

Attacks, but no major disruption

The voting was praised as having passed off largely peacefully following a series of high-profile attacks in the run-up to the election by Taliban militants. Dozens of polling places did not open due to security threats.

While there were instances of violence, with nine policemen, seven soldiers and four civilians reported to have been killed in some 140 attacks overall, Interior Minister Mohammad Umar Daudzai said Taliban threats to stop the elections had failed.

"The enemy promised to halt elections. Our forces promised security. Today, I can say confidently the enemy failed," he said.

The presidential election is Afghanistan's third since the US-led invasion in 2001, which ousted the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It will see the first democratic handover of power in the country's history, and the end of President Hamid Karzai's administration, which has led the country since the overthrow of the Taliban.

Karzai's successor will face a tough task, with Afghan forces set to take full control of the fight against the Taliban at the end of this year as international forces withdraw.

While partial results could be released as early as Sunday, a more complete picture is not expected for at least a week. Preliminary results are due April 24. If no candidate wins more than half of the votes for president, a run-off election will be held at the end of May.

se/hc (dpa, AFP, AP)

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