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Afghans vote in force, scorn Taliban threats
Sun Sep 18, 2005 4:26 PM BST
By Robert Birsel
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban fighters failed on Sunday to sabotage Afghanistan's first legislative elections in decades, with voters turning out in force for a ballot President Hamid Karzai called a defining moment for the nation.
Polls closed at 4 p.m. (1230 BST), with no reports of major violence, despite a rash of more than two dozen harassing attacks by the guerrillas across the troubled south and east.
"We're building our country, we're making our parliament," said Mohammed Twahir, 36, after voting in the southern city of Kandahar, usually considered a bastion of support for the Taliban.
"Before there was no democracy, now we have democracy. Democracy means freedom."
That enthusiasm was echoed by many other voters.
"I'm so happy, I couldn't sleep last night and was watching the clock to come out to vote," said Qari Salahuddin, 21, in the eastern city of Jalalabad soon after voting began.
There was an early scare in Kabul when two rockets hit a U.N. compound near an election centre shortly after polls opened, wounding an Afghan worker.
At least 13 people were killed in clashes just before and during the U.N.-organised vote, most near the Pakistani border.
A Taliban fighter died in an overnight attack on a polling station before voting started and three insurgents were killed in another clash. Among other casualties were four civilians killed in a mortar attack and a French soldier who died in a mine blast.
But the U.N.-Afghan election commission said voting had been remarkably peaceful and the government hailed it as a victory over the insurgents.
"It went very well, beyond our expectations. After all their boasting, it's a big failure for the Taliban," said Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.
Voting was held at over 6,000 polling stations from the deserts of the south to the towering Hindu Kush mountains of the northeast, one of the most difficult logistical operations ever undertaken by international electoral workers.
About 5,800 candidates ran. Donkeys and camels transported voting materials to some remote districts.
Chief electoral officer Peter Erben said he believed turnout had been high although election observers said it appeared fewer had voted than in last year's presidential election, which saw a 70 percent turnout.
"I see an extremely healthy election taking place around Afghanistan," Erben said before polls closed, adding that any impression of a low turnout could be misleading as there were more polling stations than last year.
A huge security operation was mounted to protect voters, involving 100,000 troops, about 20,000 from a U.S.-led force and 10,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, after more than 1,000 people died in violence in the months ahead of the election
The deaths included seven candidates and six poll workers.
"SO HAPPY, SO HAPPY"
The $159 million (87 million pounds) polls for a lower house of parliament and provincial councils were part of an international plan to restore democracy after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and followed presidential polls won by Karzai last year.
About 12.5 million Afghans registered to vote in the first legislative elections since 1969, and enthusiasm was high.
In the 249-seat national assembly, 68 seats are reserved for women and election officials said there appeared to have been a high turnout of women in some conservative Muslim areas where their participation had been in doubt.
"I am so happy, so happy," said Khatereh Mushafiq, 18, her black veil decorated with white flowers pulled back from her beaming face as she went to vote at a girl's school in Kandahar.
"We are also now taking part in the government and in society. People must take part, people must have a say."
Karzai called it a historic day.
"The Afghan people have proven once again that they know their interest, that they can work for tomorrow, that they have a vision and that they have voted for that vision," he said.
But he warned the vote would not end the insurgency.
"The attack on Afghanistan will continue tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," he said.
Even so, a successful poll will be a boost for the U.S. administration, allowing it to portray Afghanistan as a success to set against the gloom from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
However the election is expected to produce a fragmented national assembly focussing on local interests, which some analysts say may be more of a help than a hindrance to Karzai.
Full provisional results will not be available until early October, but Yunus Qanuni, runner up to Karzai last year and now heading an opposition bloc, predicted before the polls his alliance would win 50 percent of the seats.
Karzai, who has not been involved in campaigning, said he would welcome opposition from a new parliament.
(Additional reporting by Yousuf Azimy, Sayed Salahuddin and David Brunnstrom)