Afghan elections open amid Taliban threats

KABUL — Afghanistan's runoff presidential campaign formally opened Saturday with an ominous repeat from the first round: Taliban threats to disrupt the vote.

"If anyone finds themselves injured taking part in this dirty process, they have only themselves to blame," the insurgent movement said in a statement posted on its Pashtu-language Web site. It also denounced the election two weeks from now as a foreign-orchestrated sham.

The original Aug. 20 balloting, Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential election, was marked by violence, mainly scattered on voting day itself but preceded by several weeks of concerted attacks, including major bombings in the capital, Kabul.

Neither of the two leading candidates attained the 50 percent majority needed to win the first round outright. After two months of wrangling over allegations of massive vote-rigging, the runoff between President Hamid Karzai and his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, was set for Nov. 7.

As the abbreviated campaign kicked off Saturday, Abdullah's campaign called for the firing of a trio of senior Afghan election officials whom it blamed for allowing widespread fraud to occur. About 1 million ballots originally tallied for Karzai, and smaller numbers for Abdullah and dozens of other candidates, were tossed out last week by international fraud auditors.

A senior Abdullah aide, Fazal Sancharaki, said the three top officials of the Independent Election Commission, widely considered loyal to Karzai, should step aside.

A commission spokesman, Noor Mohammed Noor, rejected the demand. "Let them bring some evidence of wrongdoing," he said.

Karzai aides, meanwhile, expressed confidence the president would emerge victorious but suggested that he would do little in the way of campaigning between now and the vote.

"We won't be having big rallies, because both candidates had enough time for that in the first round," said Wahid Omar, a spokesman for the Karzai campaign.

Afghan authorities and Western military officials have pledged to do all they can to safeguard the vote. Clashes between allied troops and insurgents were heavier at the time of the original balloting, which came at the height of the traditional summer "fighting season," but occasional confrontations are still occurring.

The drawn-out political crisis has complicated decision-making in the U.S. over whether to deploy more U.S. forces in Afghanistan.