Donkeys carry ballot boxes to villages for Afghan vote

PANJSHIR, Afghanistan (AFP) - Donkeys laden with ballot boxes trudged up rough tracks and mountain trails in remote parts of Afghanistan on Friday, on the eve of presidential elections in a country that still has few proper roads.

Delivering election materials by donkey has become a regular feature of Afghan elections since 2004, when the first vote was held after the fall of the authoritarian Taleban regime.

In heavy rain and against a dramatic backdrop of snowy peaks, about 30 donkeys made their way to villages high in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.

The steep valley in the Hindu Kush mountain range is famous for its residents' dogged resistance first against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then the Taleban in the 1990s.

"This is the third election I have done with my donkeys," said Mr Abdul Khir, 33, as his animals were loaded up with blue ballot boxes and other election equipment in Shutul district.

"I get paid 10,000 Afghanis (US$175) for each of my eight donkeys to deliver boxes from the end of the road to two polling stations, and then bring them back on Sunday. The journey takes between four and five hours."

Mr Maulana Gulbuddin, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) chief in Shutul, told AFP: "Of course it is difficult in the mountains and there is heavy snowfall in some places.

"Donkeys are able to carry material along tracks that are not good enough for cars."

IEC officials told AFP that about 4,000 donkeys, horses and mules would be used to distribute and collect votes in nine provinces including Badakhshan, Panjshir, Kunar and Bamiyan.

"We have dispatched election materials by planes, by road and by donkeys, horses and camels," Mr Abdul Malik Hanifi, IEC director for Badakhshan, told AFP.

About 13.5 million voters are estimated to be eligible to cast their ballot in Saturday's election, which the Taleban militants have vowed to target.

Among the many tasks facing the next president will be improving Afghanistan's road network, which remains extremely poor despite the billions of dollars of international aid that have poured into the country since 2001.