KABUL, Afghanistan -- Foreign election specialists yesterday studied complaints from candidates in Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election, setting aside suspect ballot boxes and further delaying the vote count.
Despite the problems, a top US general said Saturday's vote ''spells the end" of the rule of the gun in a country still controlled by warlords.
With ballot boxes pouring in by road, air, and even donkey from across the rugged and impoverished land, officials had forecast that the counting could begin yesterday.
But a three-person panel set up to investigate alleged irregularities said that they were still examining 43 objections made by opponents of President Hamid Karzai and that the tallying cannot start until all the complaints are reviewed.
Craig Jenness, a Canadian lawyer who is one of the panelists, said the body had recommended that ballot boxes from 10 sites in four provinces be isolated.
Jenness did not say when the review would be completed, but assured that counting would begin ''very quickly" afterward.
He said candidates had until today to file additional complaints, but vote-counting would not be held up further.
It is widely believed that Karzai will secure a clear victory over the 15 other candidates when the final results are announced toward the end of the month.
The establishment of the panel appeased Karzai's opponents, who had threatened to reject the result.
Election staff were supposed to mark voters' left thumbs with indelible ink, but some apparently used pens meant for ballots or ink meant for stamping. The wrong ink was easily washed off, opening the way to claims of multiple voting. Election organizers had issued 10.5 million registration cards, far more than expected, fueling concern that some people had obtained several.
A spokesman for ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said he also had filed written complaints to the panel about polling stations running out of ballot papers and a dearth of voting centers in west Kabul, where many Hazaras live.
Meanwhile, eight people stranded for 24 hours since a helicopter sent to retrieve ballots crash-landed at high altitude in northeastern Afghanistan were rescued yesterday, according to UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.
The rescue helicopter was reassigned to pick up ballots from remote Badakhshan Province, though it was unclear when the collection would be complete.
While the complaints from many candidates have raised questions about the legitimacy of the results, the election has been a clear triumph for the massive security operation mounted to protect it from militant attack.
Lieutenant General David Barno, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said the lack of major violence and the enthusiastic turnout were a ''resounding defeat" for Taliban and Al Qaeda rebels.
''This turning point spells the end of more than two decades of the rule of the gun in this nation and confirms the bright hope of all the Afghan people in a democratic future centered on the rule of law," he told reporters in Kabul.
The upbeat assessment was made as NATO defense ministers met in Romania to consider issues that include the merging of US-led forces in Afghanistan with the alliance's separate contingent.
The US ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, suggested Tuesday that the alliance could take over the military mission in Afghanistan as early as 2005, prompting Germany's defense minister to reject the proposal quickly.
Barno, who commands 18,000 mainly American troops in Afghanistan, said the timeline for such a merger was ''uncertain," but forecast that US forces would play a ''very, very large role and have a large percentage" of any combined force.
NATO is already expected to extend its 9,000-strong Afghan operation, focused on bolstering the Afghan government and its reemerging national security forces, from the capital and the north to the west next year.
Barno would not say when the number of US-led troops might drop.