KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan's presidential election result has been delayed for several days, officials said Tuesday, as a dispute over alleged fraud threatens to derail the country's first democratic transfer of power.
The preliminary result of the June 14 run-off vote had been due on Wednesday but was postponed at short notice to allow ballots in 2,000 voting centres to be checked - throwing the handover process into turmoil.
Abdullah Abdullah, previously seen as the poll front-runner, has said he would reject the result due to "blatant fraud", while his poll rival Ashraf Ghani said the election was clean and claimed victory by more than one million votes.
The United Nations and donor countries have been trying for months to prevent a contested election outcome, fearing political deadlock and ethnic violence as US-led troops withdraw from the country.
But with the two candidates at loggerheads, many fear the impasse could tip Afghanistan into a risky period of street protests and uncertainty.
"We have started inspecting the votes in around 2,000 polling centres after the commission decided to make sure of transparency," Independent Election Commission member Sharifa Zurmati told AFP.
"The announcement has been delayed for several days until the inspection ends. We will hopefully finish the inspection on Friday and then set a date." "During the inspection, some votes will be invalidated."
About 6,000 voting centres were open across Afghanistan on June 14, when voters defied the threat of Taliban attacks to choose between former foreign minister Mr Abdullah and Mr Ghani, an ex-World Bank economist.
Any tension between supporters could ignite ethnic unrest since Ghani attracts much of his support from the Pashtun tribes of the south and east, while Abdullah's loyalists are Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups.
The UN has expressed its concerns over rising friction and last week called on candidates and their supporters to "refrain from any acts that incite imminent violence, civil disorder or lead to instability".
Mr Ghani's campaign team criticised the delay, but said it welcomed any attempt to prevent fraud in the vote count.
"We believe the election commission should work in accordance to the election timeline and announce that results on time," said campaign spokeswoman Azita Rafat.
"If this delay is for the sake of transparency then we accept it, though it runs against the election law."
Mr Abdullah, a former anti-Taleban resistance fighter, believes fraud denied him victory in the 2009 election and has said he is again the victim of massive ballot-box stuffing overseen by the election commission, Mr Ghani and outgoing President Hamid Karzai.
In contrast, Mr Ghani has said he put together a coalition of voters from across ethnic lines to score a surprise victory.
The vote was held after the two came first and second in an eight-man election on April 5, when Mr Abdullah was far ahead with 45 per cent against Mr Ghani's 31.6 per cent.
Mr Karzai, who has ruled since the fall of the Taleban regime in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term in office.
He has not publicly endorsed either candidate and has vowed to ensure a legitimate election - a key benchmark of the massive US-led military and civilian aid effort after the Taliban era.
The preliminary result was due to be followed by a three-week period for adjudication of complaints, with the final result due on July 22 and the inauguration of a new president on August 2.