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Afghanistan to audit all votes cast in presidential election

KABUL — Afghanistan will conduct an audit of the 8 million votes cast in the recent presidential election, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Saturday, a deal he brokered to resolve a tense power struggle between the top two presidential candidates over allegations of widespread vote fraud.

The audit, which will begin immediately, will be supervised by international monitors and its results will be binding, according to the agreement announced by Kerry and endorsed by the rival candidates in Kabul, the capital.

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“Every single ballot that was cast will be audited,” he said.

The breakthrough came on the second day of a visit that Kerry hastily arranged to try to prevent Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power from collapsing. Both candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, had said the election was marred by fraud, but both had also claimed victory.

Tensions rose Tuesday when Abdullah threatened to form his own government, raising the possibility of an ethnically and regionally divided Afghanistan just as US troops prepare to complete their withdrawal.

Kerry made the announcement flanked by Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, after intense negotiations involving shuttling between the two sides and meetings with President Hamid Karzai.

The audit will take several weeks, and Kerry said he and the candidates would ask Karzai to postpone the inauguration, now scheduled for Aug. 2. The audit will begin within 24 hours, Kerry said. Ballot boxes will be flown into the capital by the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan, and United Nations and other international observers will watch the entire process.

“This is unquestionably a tense and difficult moment,” Kerry said at a news conference, “but I am very pleased that the two candidates who stand here with me today and President Karzai have stepped up and shown a significant commitment to compromise.”

Jan Kubis, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, called on other nations to send extra observers to assist with the audit as soon as possible.

The two candidates spent the day inside the US Embassy building, holding separate meetings with Kerry, according to campaign officials. Kerry then traveled to the presidential palace to talk to Karzai. Talks had continued into the early evening without food or drink because of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast during the day.

Discussions concerned how to determine how many ballots should be reexamined for fraud and how to ensure that the audit was impartial. Both sides had wrangled over the technical details, in particular the threshold for selecting which ballots should be reviewed.

Mahmoud Saikal, an adviser to Abdullah, said that “preliminary progress” had been made, but a spokesman for Ahmadzai, Abdullah Poyan, said the discussions remained “complicated.”

Kerry had to seek not only agreement by the two candidates but also acceptance by Karzai, who will step down after 13 years in power and has by all accounts remained a powerful presence behind the scenes.

The dispute, which has delayed results for nearly a month since the initial vote, comes amid a rise in violence around the country. Civilians are killed and wounded more frequently now than at any point since the arrival of US forces, the International Crisis Group said Saturday.

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