KABUL -- Incumbent Hamid Karzai has defended last month's Afghan presidential election as honest, a day after returns showed him set to win in a single round and a UN-backed panel ordered a partial recount.
The standoff has alarmed Western leaders who have risked their own political capital to send troops on what is becoming an increasingly unpopular mission.
Preliminary election results issued on September 8 gave Karzai more than 54 percent of valid votes tallied, putting him above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
But the independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), appointed mainly by the United Nations, said it had found "clear and convincing" evidence of fraud and ordered a partial recount.
On September 9, Karzai praised the conduct of the vote.
"The president praised the [election officials] for holding the election with honesty and impartiality despite all the difficulties," the presidential palace said in a statement.
Abdullah says Karzai's backers have attempted to steal the Aug. 20 election by stuffing ballots on a massive scale.
Early vote tables, which have been removed from the election commission's website without explanation, showed whole villages in which Karzai received every single ballot cast, sometimes with exactly 400 or 500 votes.
For now, Western officials have put their confidence in the watchdog ECC, which can overturn the result and must sign off on the outcome before it is final.
Diplomats say they are uneasy but resigned to the possibility of the U.N.-backed body reversing a result released by Afghanistan's own election authorities.
The West originally hailed the vote as a success, largely because the Taliban failed to disrupt it. Those assessments have became increasingly muted as evidence of fraud has mounted.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari played down concerns about the Afghan election and said in a BBC television interview he would be present if Karzai is sworn in for a new term.
Mourning For Mas'ud
In central Kabul, hundreds of people gathered to mourn the death of Tajik anti-Taliban hero Ahmed Shah Mas'ud who was killed on September 9, 2001, by Al-Qaeda -- a crucial rallying day for half-Tajik Abdullah who was part of Mas'ud's inner circle.
Addressing the rally, Abdullah made no direct mention of the election but played up his link to the iconic commander.
"Mas'ud fought for this country and died for this country," said Abdullah, whose supporters have threatened to hold protests if their election concerns were not heard. "He fought to bring peace and security to this country."
Speaking alongside Abdullah in a city festooned with Mas'ud posters, ex-president and key ally Burhanuddin Rabbani added: "The election result must be cleaned or Afghanistan will face chaos and big challenges."
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who draws much of his support from his ethnic heartland in the south, did not attend the ceremony.
Locking Afghanistan into a further period of uncertainty, the ECC has ordered Afghan officials to recount results from polling stations where one candidate received more than 95 percent of the vote or more votes were cast than the expected maximum of 600.
Election officials say that could take weeks or even months.
British ambassador to Afghanistan Mark Sedwill said it was too early to judge the authenticity of the vote before the ECC had finished its process of screening ballots for fraud.
"We have to see the result of their investigations," he told BBC radio. "We always knew there would be fraud in this election, a lot of irregularities, I'm afraid that was inevitable, and we talked about that before the election."
Facing an increasingly sceptical public opinion over its role in Afghanistan, Britain on Wednesday offered to host a global conference to set targets for handing over security commitments from foreign troops to Afghan forces.
Raid Frees Reporter
Before dawn, NATO troops stormed a Taliban hideout in the north of the country to release New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell of Britain and his Afghan colleague Mohammad Sultan Munadi who were kidnapped by insurgents at the end of last week.
Farrell was freed but Munadi was killed in the rescue, along with a British soldier and at least one civilian.
The two had been headed to cover the aftermath of a NATO air strike called in by German troops that killed scores of people. The strike took place in an area controlled by the Taliban and fuelled anger among its mainly Pashtun local people.
NATO has confirmed that some civilians may have been killed and ordered a formal investigation into the air strike -- the deadliest incident involving German troops since World War II.
The German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" quoted a senior NATO officer as saying that, according to preliminary NATO findings, the German officer who called in the air strike did not have the right to give the order.