KABUL (AFP) - Afghanistan's presidential rivals were mulling a UN plan for a sweeping review of the disputed polls, as US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to broker an end to the political turmoil.
Under a proposal put forward by the United Nations, the country's elections commission would audit ballot boxes from just over 8,000 polling stations where suspicions have been raised about the vote count. The bitter standoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani over the run-off vote to succeed President Hamid Karzai has plunged Afghanistan into crisis and raised fears of a return to the ethnic violence of the 1990s.
As Mr Kerry met separately with the rival candidates, he stressed that results released on Monday showing Ghani in the lead were only "preliminary".
"They are neither authoritative nor final, and no-one should be stating a victory at this point in time," Mr Kerry said. "We want a unified, stable, democratic Afghanistan. It is important that whoever is president is recognised by the people as having become president through a legitimate process."
Despite Monday's announcement, Mr Abdullah, who has already lost one presidential bid in controversial circumstances, has declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory in the June 14 run-off vote.
After back-to-back meetings all day Friday and deep into the night at the heavily-fortified US embassy, American officials announced Mr Kerry would go into unexpected fresh talks with all the main players on Saturday. Although they said the talks had been "constructive," they stressed it was too early to say if there would be a breakthrough.
In a swift boost for the top US diplomat's efforts, Mr Ghani backed a wide audit of the elections. "Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy of the people of Afghanistan and the world," he said as he met Mr Kerry. "Therefore we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith."
UN officials late on Thursday presented a plan to Mr Karzai to audit polling stations across 34 provinces, a process that would take two weeks. These would be selected according to five criteria that could indicate fraud - such as whether the results were multiples of 50, or where women's polling stations were staffed by men.
"These criteria would create an audit that entails 8,050 polling stations (35 percent of all polling stations) and 3.5 million ballots (44 percent of all ballots cast)," the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.
A Ghani campaign official, Azita Rafaat, said that they had "accepted the audit of those polling stations". Mr Abdullah's team said they were reviewing the proposal, but campaign spokesman Fazal Sancharaki remained sceptical, saying it did not meet all their demands.
"This is an incomplete proposal, it's not an inclusive one," he said.
US officials told reporters late on Friday that "many ideas were under consideration" as they try to find a path forward.
"There were millions of people that voted... they deserve to be counted accurately and to demonstrate that democracy works," a senior US administration official said.
In his talks, Mr Kerry also renewed warnings about "abandoning" the process, and stressed that any violence or power grab "will cost them the support of their people and the international community", the official said.
Another US official said the UN audit would be very important. "There were serious allegations of fraud that were raised that have not been sufficiently investigated," he said. Little headway seemed to have been made, however, in persuading Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah to meet and discuss a way forward.
After more than 13 years since the 2001 US invasion to oust the hard-line Taleban Islamic regime, all sides are keen to maintain the gains made in such areas as literacy rates and women's rights. But Afghan forces know they will increasingly have to stand up to a bloody Taliban insurgency on their own, as President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2016.
The Obama administration is also waiting for Afghan leaders to sign a bilateral pact governing the presence of US forces in the country beyond this year, which both candidates say they will sign.