First Afghan election results due

KABUL: President Hamid Karzai's camp insisted it had triumphed in landmark elections while his main rival claimed foul play as Afghanistan readied Tuesday for the first results from the contested polls.

Election authorities announced they would release partial results later in the day, but a final result next month cannot be certified until officials complete investigations into at least 225 alleged abuses.

Karzai and his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to lead the count after Thursday's vote, only Afghanistan's second direct presidential election in history.

"We are the winner, definitely," Din Mohammad, Karzai's chief electoral campaign official, told AFP on Tuesday, ruling out speculation that the president, who has ruled for seven years, would be forced into a run-off.

"There's no need for a run-off," Mohammad added.

Finance Minister Omar Zakhailwal, a Karzai loyalist, told media late Monday that his boss had won 68 percent of the ballot. But an official in the president's office put the figure slightly lower.

"No, I don't think it's 68 percent. I think it's something like 60 percent, plus or minus," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Karzai's senior spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, refused to comment at a public news conference, saying: "We'd better wait."

The 51-year-old president, whose tenure since the 2001 US-led ouster of the Taliban regime has been marred by war and corruption, won the first presidential election in 2004 with 55.4 percent of the vote.

Questions have been raised about the impartiality of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), as its chief officer Azizullah Lodin is a former advisor to Karzai and witnesses accused staff of being complicit in fraud.

One Western diplomat said talk of results was pure speculation and warned the emphasis would now be on keeping the political process alive, predicting overall turnout figures as low as 30 to 35 percent.

"No one knows. The Afghans themselves don't know, but Karzai doesn't want a second round," he said.

Abdullah, who says he has evidence of massive vote rigging in Karzai's favour, has also insisted that he is ahead in the vote count.

Analysts say the counter-claims show that the main contenders are embarked on a game of brinkmanship before official results hand Karzai or Abdullah an outright win, or set the stage for a run-off.

"The candidates do seem to be playing to the international press, because there is such a hunger for headlines," a senior UN official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"It's all part of the game and no matter what they come out and say, they only have part of the picture themselves.

"Abdullah does appear to be positioning himself for a loss. And that's part of the process too as it happens anywhere -- accept defeat, be gracious in congratulating the winner, become an honourable opposition," the official said.

The United Nations has thrown its full weight behind the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) as it probes complaints, and appealed for patience.

"It is not my job to define how significant and how widespread those irregularities have been. That is up to the process that now follows and where the ECC will play a critical role," UN special envoy Kai Eide said.

The IEC will release results piecemeal. Its spokesman, Noor Mohammad Noor, said around 10 percent of preliminary figures would be announced on Tuesday. Those first results were not expected to provide a clear picture overall.

Depending on the results, the outcome could divide the north and the south of the country. Abdullah has his powerbase in the north among ethnic Tajiks, while Karzai has strong influence in the Pashtun-dominated south.