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Afghan candidates in last minute talks to defuse election crisis

By Mirwais Harooni and Maria Golovnina

KABUL (Reuters) - Rival Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani held last-minute talks on Monday to try to resolve a standoff over the outcome of a troubled election, as officials once again delayed the announcement of preliminary results.

The deadlock over the June 14 second round run-off has quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan, a headache for the West as most U.S.-led forces continue to withdraw from the country this year.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission had been due to announce results of the June 14 run-off vote at 2 p.m. (0530 am ET ) but officials said it would be put off by a few hours.

It was unclear what caused the delay, which came as rival camps struggled to find a last-minute compromise to keep Afghanistan from sliding into a protracted period of uncertainty without a clear leader accepted by all sides.

Ghani's camp said the two sides had agreed to audit an additional 7,100 polling stations to ensure the final result is clean but Abdullah's aides said the compromise was not final.

Both rounds of the vote to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai have been plagued by accusations of mass fraud, and the refusal by either candidate to accept the outcome could split the fragile country along ethnic lines.

Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban fighter, insists results should be delayed until all fraudulent voted have been thrown out. Ashraf Ghani, an ex-World Bank official, is believed to be in the lead in the second round.

"Our meetings continued until midnight and there were some improvements but we haven’t reached final agreement," said Mujibul Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for Abdullah.

Azita Rafhat, a spokeswoman for Ghani’s camp, said the two sides had agreed to expand the fraud investigation beyond the 1,930 polling stations that are currently being audited.

"We have agreed to audit ballots from 7,100 polling stations in 10 provinces for more transparency," Azita Rafhat, a spokeswoman for Ghani’s camp, told Reuters.

RISKS

Abdullah, who has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, draws much of his support from the Tajik minority in northern Afghanistan. Ghani, a former World Bank economist, has strong support from Pashtun tribes in the country's south and east. Refusal by either Abdullah or Ghani to accept the outcome of the election could plunge the country into a dangerous crisis, with the possibility of a bloody standoff between the two ethnic groups or even secession of parts of the country.

Without a clear leader, Afghanistan could split into two or more fiefdoms along tribal fault lines, or even return to the bloody civil war of the 1990s.

But on Monday, both sides appeared keen to find a compromise. Official final results are due on July 22, so election officials still have time to conduct a broader fraud probe that would be suitable to both sides.

Ghani's aides say he is in the lead in the run-off by at least one million votes.

Abdullah has accused Karzai, also a Pashtun, of playing a role in the alleged rigging in Ghani's favour and says he would accept the vote only if he saw firm evidence that fraudulent votes had been thrown out and the final result was clean.

As their standoff intensified in past weeks, Afghanistan has become awash with talk about a broader rift along ethnic lines or even violence unless they agree to accept the outcome of the vote or come to a compromise arrangement.

In the background, Taliban insurgents remained a formidable security risk after vowing to disrupt the election process. On Monday, they killed a district police chief in the western city of Herat and attacked a check point in northern Afghanistan.

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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