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Karzai Tells Taliban To Vote In Afghan Elections

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on the Taliban and their allies on June 27 to vote in August's elections rather than attempt to disrupt the nation's second presidential poll.

The August 20 vote is seen as a crucial moment for Karzai's government and for Washington, which is sending thousands of extra troops this year as part of President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

"I appeal to them [the Taliban] again and again to avoid any conflicts, not only during polling days but forever," Karzai told a news conference at his heavily guarded palace.

"Through elections we can bring peace and security, and through elections we can bring development," he said.

The Taliban, whose strict Islamist government was ousted after a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, have repeatedly rejected the election as a Western-inspired sham.

The Taliban have also rejected Karzai's calls for them to join the peace process, saying no talks can take place until all foreign troops have left the country.

Washington has already almost doubled the number of its troops from the 32,000 in the country in late 2008 in order to secure the elections and to combat a growing Taliban insurgency.

Karzai has ruled since the Taliban's ouster and won the nation's first direct vote for president in 2004.

A clear favourite to win again, he welcomed meetings held by foreign officials and diplomats with some of the 40 candidates opposing him, particularly his main rivals, former senior ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

But he also called on the international community not to interfere and to play an impartial role. Most of the more than $230 million the Afghan election will cost is being provided by Washington and its allies.

An unflattering report by leading think tank the International Crisis Group this week said poor security and failure to capitalize on gains since the 2004 poll meant widespread fraud was possible in the voting.

The Taliban-led insurgency has reached its most violent level since 2001, U.S. military commanders have said. It has grown out of traditional Taliban strongholds in the south and east into the once relatively peaceful north and to the fringes of Kabul.