Voters have flocked to Afghanistan's presidential election amid massive security precautions. Electoral officials extended polling by one hour and issued extra ballot papers to cope with long queues.
An estimated 7 million of the 12 million eligible voters turned out for the presidential election on Saturday, according to Ahmed Yousuf Nouristani, the chairman of the Independent Elections Commission.
The high turnout prompted a polling extension until 5 p.m. local time (1230 UTC) as Afghans braved Taliban threats to pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
Voters were entitled to cast ballots for provincial councils as well as in the presidential election, which could result in a run-off ballot in late May. In all, 6,212 polling centers in 34 provinces opened, Nouristan said.
Another 959 ballot centers were kept closed because of security concerns and incidents, he added.
The elections promise to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. US President Barack Obama said the polls also represented "another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces."
Since helping Afghan forces to topple a strict Islamist Taliban regime in 2001, the US has spent an estimated $90 billion (66 billion euros) on aid and security training in Afghanistan.
In the southern city of Qalat a roadside bomb killed two policemen and in Logar province a blast wounded four voters. Otherwise, no major attacks were reported.
In chilly, rain-drenched Kabul, 40-year-old housewife Nazia Azizi said she had stood in a queue, determined to vote. "I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election," she said.
Karzai's re-election in 2009 was marred by vote-rigging that was condemned world-wide.
Bar codes and ink
Preparations for Saturday's vote included bar codes on ballot boxes and indelible, ultra-violet ink to mark voters' fingers. The electoral protocol also required immediate tallies after the vote closed and the posting of results at each center.
Final results, however, could take weeks because of Afghanistan's rugged terrain. In remote areas, donkeys were used to transport election material.
Interior Minister Omar Daudzai said all 400,000 of Afghanistan's police, army and intelligence service personnel were deployed Saturday to guard polling stations and voters.
Eight presidential candidates
Contesting Afghanistan's third presidential election were eight candidates. Among the favorites were former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul , and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in Saturday's round, a run-off is due on May 28. First-round results are to be announced by April 24.
If vote-counting drags out, this would leave little time to finalize a proposed pact between Kabul and Washington on retaining up to 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Karzai has rejected such a pact, but the three frontrunners have pledged to sign it.
Meanwhile, a police spokesman in the eastern province of Khost said an arrested colleague had confessed tofatally shooting Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus on Friday.
He had wanted "to take revenge" for NATO air raids on his village in Ghorband valley, the spokesman said.
Canadian AP reporter Kathy Gannon was wounded during the shooting.
ipj,tj/rc (Reuters; AP, AFP)