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Afghan quits presidential race, backs front-runner

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan presidential candidate with royal lineage quit the race Wednesday in favor of a front-runner, narrowing the contest in the April 5 poll down to eight men.

Mohammad Nadir Naim announced his pullout, saying he was withdrawing for the sake of national unity and throwing his support behind former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.

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Naim, grandson of Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah who died in 2007, was never considered a strong candidate in the race.

Rassoul is a longtime loyalist of the former king, whose 40-year rule has been described as the last time Afghanistan enjoyed a protracted period of peace and relative stability.

Naim told about 300 supporters, that Rassoul is the only candidate who can bring the country’s many groups together and shepherd Afghanistan out of more than three decades of relentless war.

Earlier President Hamid Karzai’s elder brother Qayyum dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Rassoul saying he could mobilize Afghanistan’s moderate majority. Qayyum said the largest bloc of Afghan voters were undecided.

A second candidate, former defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, also dropped out of the race without backing anyone.

Karzai is barred from seeking a third term in office under Afghanistan’s constitution.

Rassoul, who resigned as foreign minister to run, appealed Wednesday for elections that are free of fraud.

The 2009 presidential elections were marred by widespread allegations of fraud, resulting in the disqualification of thousands of votes for Karzai and leading to a run off. His main rival and a current front runner, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out saying he did not believe a fair vote would be held.

With three strong contenders out of eight candidates overall in the upcoming elections, nobody is expected to win a majority, forcing a run off.

Rassoul’s bold choice of a female running mate brought scores of women to Wednesday’s meeting, during which Naim announced his withdrawal.

Each presidential candidate has two vice-presidential running mates. Rassoul’s choice of Habiba Sarabi has drawn widespread support from women’s rights groups and women parliamentarians.

‘‘We are all here to show our support for Sarabi and for the rights of Afghan women,’’ said Zahra Mousawi, a women’s rights activist.

Meanwhile, an insurgent in an explosive-packed vehicle detonated the explosives at a police checkpoint in the capital of eastern Khost province on Wednesday and killing one civilian, and wounded eight others — including four policemen.

Taliban insurgents have stepped up attacks ahead of the elections.

Mubariz Mohammed Zadran, spokesman for the Khost provincial governor, said the bomber became nervous when police stopped him and detonated his explosives destroying his vehicle and killing himself.

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