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Afghans ignore Taliban threats and vote again in final test

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KABUL – Polls closed on Saturday after a mostly peaceful run-off to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, a decisive test of the country’s ambitions to transfer power democratically for the first time in its tumultuous history.

As most foreign troops leave by the end of 2014, whoever takes over from Karzai will inherit a troubled country plagued by an increasingly assertive Taliban insurgency and an economy crippled by corruption and the weak rule of law.

The election 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.

As voting ended at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT), it emerged there had been far fewer incidents of violence than had been feared, and, like in the first round of voting in April, there was a palpable sense of relief in the Afghan capital.

“I’m from this country so I am never afraid of threats,” said Lajiullah Azizi, a hospital worker who voted in western Kabul just minutes after a small bomb exploded at his polling station. “I hope this election will bring peace.”

Officials immediately began counting ballots, although Afghanistan’s difficult terrain, where ballot boxes have to hauled by donkey from some of its remotest corners, means preliminary results will not be known until July 2.

“Based on what I saw, it’s been a very calm election day with vigilant security,” Thijs Berman, the chief observer of the EU Election assessment team in Afghanistan.

Karzai, standing down after 12 years in power marked by increasingly sour relations with the West, is certain to retain a hand in politics but has been tight-lipped about his plans.

“Today Afghanistan takes a step towards stability, development and peace. Come out and determine your destiny,” Karzai, clad in his trademark green Afghan robe, said after casting his ballot.

Twelve million voters were eligible to cast ballots at 6,365 polling centers across Afghanistan, from windswept deserts on the Iranian border to the rugged Hindu Kush mountains.

There were isolated cases of violence but voters were not put off by a couple of rockets landing in Kabul and other attacks, in which one person was reported injured. Long queues snaked out of polling centers soon after voting began at 7 a.m.

Rocket attacks were also reported in Ghazni province.

In a more serious incident, two tribal elders were killed when they defied a Taliban warning in Kunar province not to participate in the elections, triggering a gun battle between villagers and insurgents, local officials said. Four rockets landed in the provincial capital. No casualties were reported.

Overall, there were 150 roadside bombs, magnet bombs and rocket attacks, according to the interior ministry.

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