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Afghan presidential poll campaigning ends

The campaigning for the Aug 20 presidential elections in Afghanistan ended Monday with top candidates addressing rallies attended by thousands of cheering supporters, a media report said.

world Updated: Aug 18, 2009 01:19 IST

The campaigning for the Aug 20 presidential elections in Afghanistan ended Monday with top candidates addressing rallies attended by thousands of cheering supporters, a media report said.

About 17 million people will vote Thursday to elect a president for the second time in Afghanistan's history. They will also elect 420 councilors in 34 provinces, The News reported.

President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, is the front-runner but a strong campaign by former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a run-off.

More than 10,000 people poured into a Kabul stadium - a once notorious Taliban execution ground - wearing blue baseball hat waving blue flags, carrying pictures of Abdullah and chanting his name over and over again.

In a vote stunt rare for Afghanistan, a helicopter circled overhead, dropping hundreds of leaflets with Abdullah's photo, election sign and number as marked on the ballot paper to help the illiterate majority vote.

Afghan police later arrested the pilots of two helicopters and campaign staff for allegedly violating Kabul airspace by dropping the leaflets.

"Hey compatriots, wake up, it is time for a big change," said the leaflets written in the three most common Afghan languages, Dari, Pashtu and Uzbeki.

Karzai, whose office said eight candidates have now abdicated in his favour, leaving around 30 contenders in the fray, came under fire for alliances with warlords during first television debate attended by an Afghan head of state.

In a 90-minute broadcast Sunday, he was criticised by outspoken anti-corruption campaigners, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and eccentric but popular Kabul lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost, over the alleged deals.

The US embassy in Kabul expressed serious concern to the Afghan government Monday following the homecoming of key Karzai ally, infamous warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, "particularly during these historic elections".

Ghani, who is running on a campaign of clean governance, job creation and economic development, addressed a final rally of 5,000 in the eastern Nangarhar province, pledging to replace the "corrupt government with a legitimate one".

"Karzai will give you food now, but will provide food for 100 years because I will provide jobs for one million people and build one million houses," the former World Bank academic pledged.

Afghanistan is expected to mobilise all available 300,000 Afghan and foreign security forces in a bid to protect voting centres and counter fears that poor turnout, because of insecurity, could jeopardise the legitimacy of the polls.

The Taliban have threatened to attack polling stations escalating their bid to derail the polls and destabilise the Western-backed government in the impoverished country where 70 percent of the population are illiterate.

NATO deputy commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, said the success of NATO and US-led military campaigns in southern trouble spots had improved security before the elections by wresting territory from the Taliban.