KABUL, Afghanistan (AFP) - A top Afghan election official accused of fraud resigned Monday, raising hopes of ending a political deadlock that threatens to derail the country's presidential succession as Nato troops withdraw.
Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, head of the secretariat of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), denied all charges against him but said he was stepping down to save the election process.
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has boycotted the counting of votes from the run-off election a week ago, accusing the IEC of being biased against him in the contest against his rival Ashraf Ghani.
"Now the door is open for us to talk to the (election) commission and talk about the conditions and circumstances that will help the process," Abdullah told reporters after Amarkhail resigned.
"We do believe in the transparency of the process, and we will defend the legitimacy of the process." Abdullah had called for Amarkhail's removal since the June 14 vote, which was at first hailed by the US and other international allies as a major step forward in the country's first democratic transfer of power.
Abdullah's campaign team on Sunday released telephone recordings that it said were conversations of Amarkhail arranging ballot-box stuffing using the code words "sheep stuffing".
"I have resigned only to protect the election process, and so that Dr Abdullah Abdullah can put an end to his boycott and resume his relationship with the IEC," Amarkhail said at a press conference.
"The audio recordings regarding fraud were fake," he added.
A smooth election is seen as a benchmark of success for the US-led coalition that has fought against the Taliban and donated billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan since 2001.
International diplomats expressed alarm over the prospect of a disputed election result and the risk of unrest as military assistance and civilian aid declines.
Pro-Abdullah demonstrators took to the streets of Kabul on Saturday, and the UN mission warned that any civil unrest "could lead to a spiral of instability".
It has also tried to reduce tension by asking Afghans not to incite violence with comments on Twitter or Facebook.
The threat of ethnic friction erupting is a constant fear for Afghanistan, where tribal loyalties are still fierce after the 1992-1996 civil war.
Abdullah's support is based among the Tajik minority and other northern tribes, while Ghani is a Pashtun - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is strongest in the Taleban heartlands of the south and east.
Reports of the ongoing vote count suggest that Ghani has made a surprise comeback after finishing behind Abdullah in the first-round election on April 5.
Ghani's campaign did not immediately respond to Abdullah's comments on Monday, but it earlier pledged to support the election authorities and let them complete the prolonged vote count.
The preliminary result is due on July 2 and the final result, after adjudication of complaints, is scheduled for July 22.