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Election officials deliver Afghan runoff ballots

Strong quake strikes nation and Pakistan

Pakistani residents stood outside a building yesterday in Islamabad after an earthquake centered in the Hindu Kush mountains shook a wide area of eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistani residents stood outside a building yesterday in Islamabad after an earthquake centered in the Hindu Kush mountains shook a wide area of eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / October 23, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Election authorities began delivering ballots with UN assistance across Afghanistan yesterday, as hurried preparations for the Nov. 7 runoff in the insurgency-plagued nation’s presidential election got underway.

International election monitors called on authorities to avert the widespread fraud that marred the first round of voting in August. Scores of election staff accused of misconduct have been axed, and new personnel need to be hired.

President Hamid Karzai will face former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in the runoff. Abdullah announced Wednesday that he was ready to take part, a day after Karzai bowed to intense US pressure and acknowledged he fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for victory in the Aug. 20 election.

UN-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai’s votes because of fraud.

In Washington, US officials said a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah to avoid a runoff was still possible, although it would be up to the Afghans.

Meanwhile, a strong earthquake centered in the towering Hindu Kush mountains shook a wide area of eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan early today, swaying buildings in the Afghan and Pakistani capitals.

There were no initial reports of damage or casualties from the quake, which struck about 12:21 a.m. Afghan time yesterday. The temblor was centered in a remote mountain area where communications are poor, however.

The earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 6.2 and was centered in mountains about 167 miles northeast of Kabul and 140 miles west of Mingaora, Pakistan, according to the US Geological Survey.

Buildings shook in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and the capital, Islamabad, and the quake was felt as far east as Lahore near the Indian border, Pakistani television stations reported. The Afghan Interior Ministry said it had no immediate reports of deaths or damage.

Paul Caruso, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey, said that even though the quake was centered in a remote area, casualties were possible. Caruso said the quake was felt as far away as New Delhi, the Indian capital.

Organizing an election in a little more than two weeks poses a huge challenge.

The preparations are being made amid a growing Taliban insurgency and ahead of mountainous Afghanistan’s winter snows, which begin in much of the country around the middle of November.

UN planes were providing logistic support to the country’s Independent Election Commission, flying ballots and voting kits to provincial capitals, from where they will be delivered by electoral officials to thousands of polling stations by truck, helicopter, and donkey, Dan McNorton, UN spokesman, said.

The IEC, the body that runs the elections, is mostly composed of Karzai supporters. It is under huge pressure to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud that marred the first voting, which discredited the government and threatened to undermine public support for the war in the United States and European countries that provide most of the 100,000 NATO-led troops serving in Afghanistan.