The next president will lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government. Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan in the last three years, and the U.S. now has more than 60,000 forces in the country close to eight years after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Taliban threats scared voters and dampened turnout in the militant south on Thursday as Afghans voted for president for the second time ever. Insurgents killed 26 Afghans in scattered attacks, but officials said militants failed to disrupt the vote.

After 10 hours of voting, including a last-minute, one-hour extension, election workers began to count millions of ballots. Initial results weren't expected for several days.

A top election official told The Associated Press he thinks 40 to 50 percent of the country's 15 million registered voters cast ballots _ a turnout that would be far lower than the 70 percent who cast ballots for president in 2004.

Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai's re-election chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Turnout in the north appeared to be stronger, a good sign for Mr Abdullah. International officials have predicted an imperfect election _ Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential vote _ but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate, a key component of President Barack Obama's war strategy. Taliban militants, though, pledged to disrupt the vote and circulated threats that those who cast ballots would be punished.

A voting official in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40 percent lower than 2004.

``In the early morning, the turnout was slow, particularly in the south of the country, but in the middle of the day, it turned out to be very good,'' said Zekria Barakzai, Afghanistan's deputy chief electoral officer. ``In central and some northern provinces, the turnout was huge.''

Security companies in the capital reported at least five bomb attacks, and Kabul police exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide bombers died in the clash, police said. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed that five gunmen were fighting with police.

Mr Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink _ a fraud prevention measure _ and held it up for the cameras. Presidential aides released a rare photo of Karzai's wife casting her vote.

After polls closed, Karzai complimented Afghans for having the courage to vote and brushed aside questions about turnout.

The Afghan people braved ``rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote. We'll see what the turnout was, but they came out to vote. That is great,'' Karzai said.

The president said militants carried out 73 attacks in 15 provinces _ a 50 percent increase in attacks compared with recent days, according to NATO figures. Mr Karzai's ministers of defence and interior said attacks killed eight Afghan soldiers, nine police and nine civilians. A U.S. service member was killed in a mortar attack in the east Thursday, bringing to at least 33 the number of U.S. troops killed this month.

Mr Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by Mr Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.

The next president will lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government. Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan in the last three years, and the U.S. now has more than 60,000 forces in the country close to eight years after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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