Afghans express relief at election deal

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Amid relief that a dangerous rift in the country's troubled democracy has been averted, Afghan officials praised a deal between presidential contenders brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and said Sunday they hope to finish a full ballot audit within weeks.

Kerry unveiled the breakthrough deal Saturday night, with both hopefuls promising to abide by the results of the audit, followed by plans for the winner to form a government of national unity with participation of the losing side. The agreement followed a marathon series of shuttle meetings between the two candidates who took part in the June 14 runoff -- former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

The two stood by Kerry's side when the bargain was revealed on national television and then spoke endorsing the agreement.

With many Afghans saying the deal exceeded their expectations from Kerry's two-day mediation, the chairman of the country's Independent Election Commission told reporters at a news conference that the commission is ready to start auditing all 8 million votes cast from 23,000 polling station within a few days and hopes to complete the process in three weeks.

Money dealers said that the value of the Afghan currency improved after the deal, and ordinary Afghan citizens in the capital and political leaders were univocal in their praise -- although some cautioned that it must still be implemented and that the way ahead is still difficult.

The chairman, Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, said additional auditors would need to be trained, but the audit can begin this week in the presence of representatives from both candidates as well as national and international observers. Audits can take place around the clock, with an aim of getting through about 1,000 polling stations results per day, he said.

The deal offered a path out of the impending political crisis in Afghanistan. Until Kerry stepped in, aided by U.N. representative Jan Kubis, both candidates had been claiming victory and even were talking of setting up competing governments.

There had been fears that a falling out between supporters of Ahmadzai and Abdullah could lead to civil war in a country already contending with a serious threat from Taliban fighters, who are in the midst of a summer offensive.

Insurgent attacks across the country killed 11 Afghan security force members, authorities said Sunday, while a suicide car bomb wounded three NATO troops.

The deadliest attacks happened overnight in Afghanistan's eastern Laghman province, when insurgents raided Afghan police and army checkpoints in Aliangar district, said Sarhadi Zwak spokesman for the provincial governor. Zwak said the dead from the assault included six police officers and one soldier, while security forces killed 15 insurgents.

In the western province of Herat, insurgents attacked a police checkpoint early Sunday morning, killing one police officer, said Raouf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial police chief. He said officers killed four insurgents in the assault in Shindand district.

An attack late Friday on another checkpoint in the district killed three police officers, he said.

Meanwhile in eastern Nangarhar province, authorities say a suicide car bomber wounded three NATO troops in an attack late Saturday in the province's Behsud district. NATO said the attacker was killed and there were no other fatalities.

Newspapers in the capital Sunday all highlighted the Kerry effort, with commentators saying it amounted to a renewal of the international commitment to backing Afghanistan's young democracy.

"People were seriously concerned about the situation, and worried about the return of civil war. Yesterday was glad news -- everybody was happy," said Nasrullah Sadeqizada, a member of parliament from central Afghanistan, and himself a member of the Hazara ethnic group. "It means that America and the international community are not leaving Afghanistan on its own."

Kabir Ranjbar, president of the Lawyers Democracy Union, said he was waiting up until midnight for the announcement. "I was so worried. It was such happy news, with Kerry in the middle and the two candidates on either side of him. The fast action of the experienced U.S. diplomat was very important at this moment. It was a proper, important and sensitive act. ... If not for the U.S. coming in, we would be left with the warlords."

A shopkeeper in Kabul, Mohammad Gul Kakar, said business has been slow and "Today we believe prosperity is on the way. Thanks to John Kerry for bringing the two candidates face to face."

While the ballot audit continues, President Hamid Karzai remains in office. Karzai had been expected to turn over the reins of his presidency on Aug. 2, but the inauguration of a new president will now await the ballot audit.

___

Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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