Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah led several thousand demonstrators through Kabul on Friday, upping the stakes in his protest against alleged election fraud that has triggered a political crisis.
Abdullah has vowed to reject the election result, saying he was the victim of massive ballot-box stuffing in the June 14 poll with vote counting reportedly putting him far behind his rival Ashraf Ghani.
As tensions rise fast between opposing supporters, the United Nations has expressed fears of spiralling ethnic violence at the same time as US-led troops pull out after their 13-year war against Taliban insurgents.
Friday’s protest was the biggest since the fraud dispute erupted and was the first that Abdullah attended, sending a public signal that could fuel further angry demonstrations and increase the risk of civil unrest.
The UN’s Afghanistan mission chief Jan Kubis has warned of “rising tensions following the second round (of elections), including increasing ethnic overtones”.
A contested election result “might lead to protracted confrontation with a danger of a slide into violence,” he added.
Abdullah went into the second-round run-off election widely seen as the favourite to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who came to power after the Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led offensive in 2001.
But Ghani is reported to be well ahead in the counting — provoking outraged claims of fraud from Abdullah and his supporters.
A smooth Afghan election is seen as crucial by nations that have fought the insurgents since 2001 and donated billions in aid, in the hope of fostering a functioning state to replace the harsh Islamist rule of the Taliban.
The preliminary election result is due on July 2 and the final result, after adjudication of complaints, is scheduled for July 22.