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In Afghanistan's rural Wardak, fear of Taliban keeps voters away

Source: Reuters - Sat, 14 Jun 2014 18:08 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Jessica Donati

MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan, June 14 (Reuters) - Little more than an hour's drive away from the lines of voters in Kabul, a polling station in rural Afghanistan was all but deserted on Saturday, with the threat of Taliban attacks undermining turnout and the legitimacy of the vote.

In the province of Wardak, where militants use districts under their control to launch attacks on the capital, streets and polling stations were mostly empty, save for election staff and their observers.

It was a scene repeated across rural Afghanistan in the second round of a presidential election that aims to transfer power peacefully for the first time in the country's tumultuous history.

To many residents in Wardak, where rockets hit near the governor's compound and clashes broke out with insurgents on Saturday, voting was not worth the risk of losing their lives.

Elsewhere in rural areas of Afghanistan, 11 voters who cast their ballots had their fingers cut off by Taliban militants as punishment, the interior ministry said.

The run-off pitted former anti-Taliban fighter Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani after neither secured the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in the first round on April 5.

At another polling station nearby, the ballot box was near empty at the close of voting on Saturday.

"Maybe it's because in the second round people have lost belief in the election," said Masuma, a school teacher. "The reason is fraud, they think that their vote is useless."

Officials said more than 7 million people out of 12 million eligible voters took part in the vote across the country, roughly the same as in the first round in April.

But presidential hopeful Abdullah questioned the election commission's figures.

"Due to security threats in the morning there weren't as many people as we were expecting," he said, adding that farmers were busy with their crops and hot weather had deterred some voters.

MILITANT PLOT

His assessment appeared to be reflected in Wardak, where by lunchtime, 12 militants had been killed while trying to disrupt the vote, according to local security officials.

In the middle of their planning room lay a huge map, dotted with colour-coded cards representing different elements of the more than 4,500-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) stationed in the province.

"God bless, no polling station has been overrun or come under attack," an intelligence official said. "The biggest reason is that all of the ANSF were very well prepared and had good coordination with each other."

Fighting was spread out across the province on Saturday and concentrated mostly around checkpoints, he said, although one battle had taken place near a polling station.

An international security official more than 20 polling stations were closed in Wardak due to security threats.

Turnout in Maidan Shahr, a district with a mostly rural population of around 36,000, was also lower than in the first round for male voters, according to officials.

"There's less participation," said Amanullah, a polling station chief at one centre, explaining that threats by the Taliban had frightened voters off.

At a compound protected by towering concrete blast walls and barbed wire, Wardak's governor said despite the low turnout voters had cast ballots in high enough numbers to prove that people wanted peace and change.

"This day is very important because right now in some places you see rockets firing and a lot of dangerous places, but the people don't care," said governor Abdul Majid Khugyani.

The election has been fraught with accusations of fraud by both candidates and many fear a close outcome will make it less likely the loser will accept defeat, possibly dragging Afghanistan into a risky, protracted stand-off.

Despite sporadic violence in Kabul and other cities, queues of voters spilled out of stations and 333 polling centres ran out of ballot papers, sparking minor protests. (Editing by Maria Golovnina and Rosalind Russell)

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