Fraud investigators threw out hundreds of thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai in the disputed August election, according to a report released on Monday. The findings set the stage for a runoff between him and his top challenger.

It was unclear, however, whether the Independent Election Commission would accept the findings of the U.N.-backed fraud panel and announce a runoff. Mr. Karzai’s spokesman said it was too soon to make a judgment based on the figures released by the panel.

Two international officials familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that the findings showed Mr. Karzai falling below the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Preliminary results released last month showed Mr. Karzai winning the August 20 election with more than 54 per cent. However, allegations of widespread fraud prompted the investigation by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission and held up a final proclamation of a winner.

Investigators did not release enough figures to allow for an independent judgment, but it was clear that hundreds of thousands of Mr. Karzai’s votes were voided. In all, more than 5 million votes were cast in the election.

“I don’t think we can make any judgment based on the figures announced today,” said Mr. Karzai’s campaign spokesman Waheed Omar.

That has raised fears that the Karzai-influenced Election Commission may refuse to call for a runoff -- further delaying formation of a government that the U.S. believes is needed to help combat the growing Taliban insurgency.

A protracted crisis could also lead to political unrest. Hundreds of Mr. Karzai’s supporters protested in the south over the weekend, calling for the electoral commission to release results quickly and saying they will reject a second round.

The White House says President Barack Obama will not send more U.S. troops until a credible government is in place.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and U.S. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were in Kabul last weekend urging the Afghans to resolve the standoff quickly.

Mr. Abdullah’s campaign spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said the U.N.-backed panel “is under threat” from Mr. Karzai. He alleged the President was urging the Election Commission not to accept the results of the fraud probe.

“He’s telling them not to accept the findings if they show less than 50 per cent for him. That’s why the IEC is not accepting the final report,” he said. “There is no end to this misery. Negotiations are still going on, but there is no agreement.”

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