KABUL — President Hamid Karzai widened his lead over his top challenger Wednesday as Afghan officials released more partial vote results. The president's new total pushed him closer to the 50 percent threshold that would allow him to avoid a two-man runoff.
It was the second batch of results released from last week's presidential election. More will be released in coming days, but final certified results will not be ready until at least mid-September, after dozens of serious complaints of fraud have been investigated.
Low voter turnout and the fraud allegations have cast a pall over the vote. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has accused Karzai of widespread rigging, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, claims Karzai's camp has denied.
The latest returns boost Karzai's standing to 44.8 percent. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, now has 35.1 percent. The count is based on returns from 17 percent of polling stations nationwide, meaning the results could still change dramatically.
Millions of Afghans went to the polls last Thursday to vote in the country's second-ever direct presidential election. Militants launched dozens of attacks across the country, shutting down some polling sites and appearing to dampen turnout.
This summer has been Afghanistan's most violent since the 2001 U.S. invasion. President Barack Obama ordered an additional 21,000 troops to the country this year, in part to help secure the elections. But violence has continued to rise.
The Taliban on Wednesday denied any responsibility for a major bombing that killed at least 43 people and wounded 65 in southern Afghanistan's largest city just after dark Tuesday.
The explosion ripped through a central area of Kandahar two hours after the first batch of election results were released. Rescue workers were still pulling out injured people early Wednesday. The blast occurred in a district that includes U.N. facilities and an Afghan intelligence office.
The Interior Ministry said the blast was from remote-controlled explosives planted in a truck. Local officials had said a cluster of five vehicle bombs caused the blast.
Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, but the group said it had no involvement in the attack. The Taliban often denies it was behind attacks that kill civilians.
"We are denying responsibility, and condemn this attack in which innocent civilians were killed," Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi wrote in a text message sent to an Associated Press reporter.
Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said officials could not yet say who was responsible. The attackers "have no conscience or families," he said.
"The area was full of innocent civilians. There were no important government institutions," said Wesa.
Among the dead was 26-year-old Mohammad Masoom, a tailor whose shop was near the blast site. His father, Mohammad Yusuf, said he ran to the scene after the explosion but could not find his son.
Yusuf cried as he described the "shocking moment" he saw Masoom's lifeless body at the hospital. The family buried him early Wednesday.
"Those cruel people!" said Yusuf, whose other son was wounded. "They killed my son, and so many innocent people. I don't know what these people want."
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar rushed to Kandahar as the head of a government delegation to investigate the attack and hand out payments to victims' families.
Atmar said Afghan security forces, supported by NATO troops, would conduct a search operation and try to have suspects in custody within 72 hours.
An Afghan employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was killed in the explosion, the group said.
The latest presidential returns are based on partial results from 28 of 34 provinces, but few votes have been counted from Kandahar and no votes from Helmand, two areas that would boost Karzai's totals.
The latest results hew closely to an opinion poll taken in July that showed 44 percent of Afghans would vote for Karzai, and 26 percent for Abdullah. The poll of 2,400 people was funded by the International Republican Institute, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from U.S. government aid arm USAID. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points
Ramazan Bashardost — a candidate likely to come in third — stood up at Wednesday's news conference and told officials they were breaking the law by announcing results before the Electoral Complaints Commission carries out its work.
The head of the Independent Election Commission, Daoud Ali Najafi, said all procedures were in accordance with the law, which stipulates that final "certified" results cannot be released until the complaints commission finishes its work.
The complaints commission has received more than 1,400 complaints, more than 150 of which could affect the vote's outcome, said spokeswoman Nellika Little.
Associated Press reporter Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.