KABUL - A run-off vote in Afghanistan's presidential election must take place even if President Hamid Karzai's challenger quits the race, Karzai's camp said on Tuesday.
Karzai agreed to a run-off under severe international pressure last week after a U.N.-led fraud investigation annulled thousands of his votes in the original August 20 election and triggered a second round.
Fuelling talk that he might pull out from the race altogether, Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, set out a range of conditions this week ahead of the November 7 second round that were immediately rejected by Karzai's team.
Waheed Omar, Karzai's chief campaign spokesman, told Reuters the election must take place even if Abdullah quits.
We should not deprive the people from their right of voting and their right of citizenship, he said. This is a legal process and should go ahead ... Whether or not president and Abdullah take part in the run-off or not should not result in depriving the people from what they want.
Karzai and Abdullah have publicly denied suggestions they could be in talks on a possible power-sharing deal and said that holding the second round was key to strengthening democracy.
Ending weeks of tension in Afghanistan is key to Western efforts to stabilize the country at a time when the insurgency is at its strongest since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
Abdullah has given Karzai until Saturday to sack the country's top election official and meet a range of other demands but would not say what he would do if his conditions were not met. He could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Karzai has rejected Abdullah's demands but said it was important to hold the second round.
Afghanistan's election commission could not provide a clear explanation as to what would technically happen if Abdullah were to announce his withdrawal.
Diplomats said Abdullah could be seeking a face-saving exit from an election that is almost certain to extend Karzai's rule.
I think he is thinking of pulling out ... but he wants to get something in return, said one observer in Kabul. Even if Abdullah stands down, Karzai will need his support, particularly in the north.
Concerns about security and a repeat of the fraud that tainted the first round have also cast a shadow over the process, and made some diplomats suggest that a power-sharing deal looked more practical.
Omar said the Afghan leader was not in contact with Abdullah on any power-sharing deals, adding that Karzai was fully focused on the second round.
The Taliban have already vowed to disrupt the November poll, highlighting the kind of challenges that face Western powers seeking to turn the tide in the eight-year war.
In Luxembourg, the European Union said it would increase aid to Afghanistan but warned the situation was deteriorating and reforms were almost non-existent in some areas.
In an appeal made at a time when public support for the war in Afghanistan is fading in Western countries, Russia, China and India urged the world to remain engaged in Afghanistan to help it counter extremism and drug trafficking.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Nick Macfie)