KABUL — President Hamid Karzai has extended his lead over his top challenger in Afghanistan's presidential election under the latest vote results released, but remains short of the 50 percent he needs to avoid a two-man runoff.
Afghan election officials are slowly releasing results from last week's presidential election, and 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, seen as critical to efforts to stabilize the country, which is wracked by Taliban insurgents and doubts over its fragile democracy. 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 released Wednesday 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. Tuesday's returns had Abdullah trailing Karzai by just 3 percent.
Although millions of Afghans voted Aug. 20, apathy and fear of militant attacks meant turnout was lower than in the nation's first direct presidential election in 2004 that was swept by Karzai.
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.
NATO said two U.S. troops died Wednesday in two separate attacks, keeping August on pace to be the deadliest month of the war for the U.S. military. The two deaths bring to 43 the number of U.S. troops killed this month. Last month was the deadliest of the war, when 44 U.S. troops died.
Late Wednesday, a rocket exploded in the main southern city of Kandahar, causing no casualties but setting a wood shop on fire, police said.
The attack occurred a day after a huge bombing in Kandahar killed at least 43 people and wounded 65. The Tuesday night attack, which destroyed dozens of buildings, took place in a district that includes U.N. facilities and an Afghan intelligence office. Rescue workers were still pulling injured people from the ruins on Wednesday.
An Afghan employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross was among the dead.
Most of the victims were ordinary Afghan civilians, like Mohammad Masoom, 26, a tailor whose shop was near the blast site. His father, Mohammad Yusuf, discovered his son's body at a hospital and condemned the "cruel people" behind the bombing. His other son was wounded in the blast.
"They killed my son and so many innocent people. I don't know what these people want," Yusuf said, weeping.
The Interior Ministry said the blast was from remote-controlled explosives planted in a truck, although local officials had said earlier a cluster of five vehicle bombs caused the blast.
The Taliban on Wednesday denied any responsibility for the attack in Kandahar — the Islamist movement's spiritual home. It often denies involvement in attacks that kill civilians.