KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top challenger in Afghanistan's disputed presidential election said Saturday that the United Nations' credibility had been damaged by a public dispute between the U.N.'s head of mission and his sacked deputy.
"In my mind I have no doubt that it has seriously damaged the U.N.'s credibility in Afghanistan," Abdullah Abdullah said at a press conference.
Abdullah stopped short of calling for the resignation of Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, the U.N. head of mission, after his former deputy, Peter Galbraith, publicly accused his ex-boss of blocking the release of details of voter fraud. Abdullah, however, accused the U.N. of a "whitewash" that is "posing serious questions ... about the neutrality of this mission led by Kai Eide."
In a letter Monday to Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general, Galbraith said Eide told Afghan President Hamid Karzai "I am biased" in your favor, and that "those who are out to get you are also out to get me," apparently referring to U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, who quarreled with Karzai a few days after the Aug. 20 vote about the need for a second round.
"The impression which it leaves to the incumbent, the impression it leaves to the Afghan people is, it offers support from a neutral body in a very sensitive election to the incumbent," Abdullah said. "This is not acceptable. We need, as the people of Afghanistan, we need an explanation about it."
In an interview Wednesday with McClatchy, Galbraith, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the 1990-95 wars that dismantled the former Yugoslavia, said it had been a mistake to recall him.
"I think it is a mistake to recall a U.N. official because he was concerned about fraud in a U.N.-supported and -funded election," he said.
A statement issued by the U.N. on Wednesday said that Ban made the decision to remove Galbraith "in the best interest of the (U.N.) mission (to Afghanistan)," adding that Ban "reaffirms his full support for his special representative, Kai Eide."
U.N. officials had no immediate response to Abdullah's comments Saturday. But the remarks ratcheted up the pressure as the Afghan-led Independent Election Commission prepares to recount and audit a sample 10 percent of suspect ballots.
The audit was ordered by the U.N.-appointed Electoral Complaints Commission because of "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" in the voting.
In the voting, Karzai led Abdullah by 54 percent to 28 percent. Abdullah said Saturday that more than 1 million Karzai votes must be excluded, something that would certainly reduce Karzai's count below 50 percent and trigger a runoff.
A sample 10 percent of 3,063 ballot boxes containing more than 600 votes, or ballot boxes where one candidate received 95 percent or more of the votes, are being reviewed. Chosen at random, 313 sample boxes have been transferred from secure provincial warehouses to a controlled location in Kabul, with the audit expected to begin Sunday.
Previously, Abdullah had said he was confident in the sampling process. But on Saturday he called the IEC corrupt and incompetent, while stressing his determination to "defend the rights of the people to the extreme end."
At one point gesturing as if firing a gun, Abdullah laughed and said, "Don't quote me, but the next thing I know is, take a gun. What else can I do?"
The change in tone follows Abdullah's return from Mazar-i-Sharif, where he met one of his key backers, Gov. Atta Mohammed Noor of the northern province of Balkh.
One of only two northern governors to support Abdullah, Atta has fallen out with Karzai, whom he accuses of arming the minority Pashtuns.
"The decision on fraud is now beside the point because tension is so high in some parts of the country," said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan Center for Policy and Research in Kabul.
Abdullah has renounced violence, while admitting he may not be able to control all his supporters, but he said Saturday that he expects them to remain calm and patient while the process works.
(Davison is a special correspondent for McClatchy.)
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