Amazement in Afghanistan as Kerry brokers deal for audit to settle presidential poll
Rivals to succeed Hamid Karzai unexpectedly agree recount to settle winner amid fraud claims
President Hamid Karzai has agreed to delay the inauguration of his successor to allow time for a full audit of votes cast in the disputed election.
It came after Afghanistan's two presidential rivals agreed to audit all eight million votes cast in the poll after two days of intense lobbying by United States Secretary of State John Kerry.
Journalists were amazed on Saturday at the UN headquarters in Kabul as Kerry made the surprise announcement after hours of waiting. Vote-checking was expected to begin yesterday.
Both candidates have vowed to stand by the results of the audit, with the winner to be declared the country's next president. The victor will immediately begin to form a national unity government. The details of that are yet to be worked out.
The first ballots to be audited will be those gathered in Kabul, while ballot boxes from across the country will be brought under high security to the capital by Nato and Afghan security forces and kept under guard.
The candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, joined hands with Kerry at the end of the news conference and raised them in triumph after securing the breakthrough, which follows a stand-off that raised fears of fresh violence along ethnic lines.
The deadlock over the run-off vote to choose a successor to Karzai plunged Afghanistan into political crisis and dented US hopes of a smooth transfer of power as Washington seeks to withdraw all troops by late 2016.
Preliminary results of the second-round vote released last Monday put Ghani in the lead, but Abdullah, who has already once lost a presidential bid in controversial circumstances, declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory.
"Let there be no doubt in keeping with each of the candidate's requests, this audit will be conducted in accordance with the highest international standards," Kerry said.
Former World Bank economist Ghani, who lagged well behind Abdullah in the first-round vote in April, urged Afghans to be patient.
"We will abide by the will of the people. We will not defend any single fraudulent vote," he said.
Abdullah, wearing a suit in contrast to Ghani's traditional Afghan dress, said the two sides had reached a "technical and political agreement".
"I hope this is for the benefit of Afghan people," he said.
Abdullah's victory claim on Monday inflamed tensions and prompted Washington to warn that violence or taking "extra-constitutional means" would result in a halt to US assistance to the war-torn country.
Karzai, barred from serving a third term, has stayed publicly neutral in the lengthy election, but Abdullah supporters have accused him of fixing the vote in Ghani's favour.
The head of the UN mission, Jan Kubis, appealed for international observer organisations to send teams as quickly as possible to oversee the audit.