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Afghanistan Presidential Runoff Election Canceled

Afghanistan's election commission has canceled Saturday's presidential runoff and proclaimed President Hamid Karzai victor of the war-ravaged nation's tumultuous ballot.

Independent Election Commission chairman Azizullah Lodin announced Karzai as the victor during a news conference in Kabul on Monday.

Karzai's challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the race Sunday because he said the vote would not be free or fair following fraud-marred first round.

The announcement came as U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday. A deadly attack last week on a Kabul guest house where U.N. election workers were staying has raised questions about whether the U.N. might scale back in Afghanistan. Militants stormed the compound before dawn, killing five U.N. staffers and three Afghans.

The U.N. kept operating after an August 2003 truck bombing at its headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, but after a second bombing it shut down operations in Iraq in late October 2003 for years.

Taliban threats of more violence and the difficulty of organizing and securing the balloting meant that officials were likely looking for a way to end the process without sending people back to the polls this week.

Karzai hasdsaid the runoff should go forward as planned, but there is no clear article in Afghanistan's constitution or electoral law to address the situation. The chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said Sunday that he would have to meet with constitutional lawyers before deciding how to proceed.

It has been more than a month since the Aug. 20 balloting that aimed to strengthen the Afghan government but instead undermined its credibility both at home and with key allies like the United States.

The vote was characterized by rampant ballot-box stuffing, and fraud investigators threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes. That move dropped Karzai below the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, forcing the runoff vote.

A bevy of international figures, including U.S. Sen. John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, were involved in convincing Karzai to accept the runoff vote.

U.N. and U.S. representatives were still involved in negotiations with the two about a power-sharing deal as recently as Sunday morning, according to a Western diplomat who was familiar with the talks but spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The U.S. and the U.N. have both issued statements calling for a quick resolution now that Abdullah has bowed out.

Abdullah has said his decision not to participate in the runoff is final. But in a sign of how much the situation is in flux, a spokesman said Monday that they could be open to still having a second round if it is delayed to put in safeguards to prevent fraud.

"Lots of opportunities have been missed and election day is very close," Fazel Sancharaki said. "If President Karzai accepts Dr. Abdullah's conditions we are thinking of a second date for the election."

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