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Afghan Recount To Cover 10 Percent Of Poll Places

Candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and President Hamid Karzai
KABUL (Reuters) -- A partial recount ordered to prevent fraud in last month's Afghan presidential election will cover more than 10 percent of polling stations, the head of a UN-backed watchdog has said.

The announcement means that enough votes are likely to be subjected to the fraud investigation to potentially alter the outcome, prolonging uncertainty over the result for weeks or months.

Main opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah said that if a result is delayed into next year, he would favor a transitional government led by neither himself nor President Hamid Karzai.

Abdullah told Reuters he was in constant discussions with Western officials about the elections and Afghanistan's political future, but he was not involved in talks about forming a coalition with Karzai to end the standoff.

Grant Kippen, the Canadian, UN-appointed head of the Electoral Complaints Commission, which has the power to veto the election result, told Reuters 2,516 polling stations were subject to a recount order his commission issued last week.

"That will be the number of polling stations that will be covered by that order to audit and recount," he said.

Election authorities say a total of 24,630 polling stations opened for the August 20 poll. The ECC has ordered a recount at stations where one candidate received 95 percent of the vote, or where more than the expected maximum of 600 votes were cast.

Karzai's main opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, says ballot stuffing took place on a large scale, especially in southern areas where the reported result overwhelmingly favors Karzai.

Under near-complete preliminary results issued so far, President Hamid Karzai has a majority of 54.3 percent, but the UN-backed ECC still has the authority to discard ballots and says it has found evidence of fraud.

The ECC has already annulled the results from dozens of polling stations, but Karzai's lead is big enough that fraud would have to be uncovered on a huge scale to trigger an election runoff.

Based on the preliminary results released so far, nearly 500,000 votes for Karzai, or 9 percent of the total valid votes cast, would have to be discarded to force a second round.

'Caretaker Government'

Kippen was unable to say how long it would take to carry out the recount, and could not rule out ordering further recounts.

Snow will soon be settling in some provinces raising concerns that a second round, if needed, could be delayed until next year.

Abdullah said that if results cannot be finalized before winter sets in, the country ought to be led by an interim government.

"I would be more comfortable with the results coming out before the winter.... But should that other scenario, which is not preferable, happen, on that I think a sort of caretaker government has to be put together," Abdullah told Reuters in an interview at his home.

He added that neither he nor Karzai ought to lead such a government but would not say who should. He added he was not in talks about forming a unity administration with Karzai but was in "continuous engagement with the international community."

Western officials initially hailed the election last month as a step forward, above all because Taliban fighters failed to prevent it taking place despite violence and threats.

Those assessments have become more guarded as fraud accusations have mounted. Diplomats now openly worry that, if fraud is seen to have played a result in the outcome, a future Karzai government could be seen as lacking legitimacy.

That could also hurt Western leaders, especially U.S. President Barack Obama, who has sent thousands of additional troops to a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular.