KABUL - Incumbent Hamid Karzai defended last month's Afghan presidential election as honest on Wednesday, a day after returns showed him on course to win in a single round but a U.N-backed panel also ordered a partial recount over fraud.
The standoff has alarmed Western leaders who have risked their own political capital to send troops on an increasingly unpopular mission to defend a government led by a president who seems eager to accept a potentially dubious election victory.
Preliminary election results issued Tuesday gave Karzai more than 54 percent of valid votes tallied, putting him above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Throwing the election's credibility into doubt, the independent Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), appointed mainly by the United Nations, said it had found clear and convincing evidence of fraud and ordered a partial recount.
In a statement Wednesday, Karzai praised the conduct of the August 20 vote.
The president praised the (election officials) for holding the election with honesty and impartiality despite all the difficulties, the presidential palace said in a statement.
Abdullah says Karzai's backers have attempted to steal the vote by stuffing ballots on a massive scale.
Early vote tables, which have since been removed from the election commission's website without explanation, showed whole villages in which Karzai received every single ballot cast, sometimes with exactly 400 or 500 votes.
For now, Western officials have put their confidence in the watchdog ECC, which can overturn the result and must sign off on the outcome before it is final. Diplomats say they are uneasy but resigned to the possibility of the U.N.-backed body reversing a result released by Afghanistan's own election authorities.
The West originally hailed the vote as a success, largely because the Taliban failed to disrupt it. Those assessments have became increasingly muted as evidence of fraud has mounted.
Locking Afghanistan into a further period of uncertainty, the ECC has ordered Afghan officials to recount results from polling stations where one candidate received more than 95 percent of the vote or more votes were cast than the expected maximum of 600.
Afghan election authorities say that process could take weeks or even months.
British ambassador to Afghanistan Mark Sedwill said it was too early to judge the authenticity of the vote before the ECC had finished its process of screening ballots for fraud.
We have to see the result of their investigations, he told BBC radio. We always knew there would be fraud in this election, a lot of irregularities, I'm afraid that was inevitable, and we talked about that before the election.
It has been a long process but there is still a long way to go, he added. The Afghans themselves are displaying remarkable patience about this process, and I guess they expected it to take some time.
RAID FREES REPORTER
Before dawn, NATO troops stormed a Taliban hideout in the north of the country to release New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell of Britain and his Afghan colleague Mohammad Sultan Munadi who were kidnapped by insurgents at the end of last week.
Farrell was freed but Munadi was killed in the rescue, along with a British soldier and at least one civilian.
In an account published on the newspaper's website, Farrell said Munadi had been shot dead in front of him while they tried to run to safety during the raid.
The two had been headed to cover the aftermath of a NATO air strike called in by German troops that killed scores of people. The strike took place in an area controlled by the Taliban and fueled anger among its mainly Pashtun local people.
NATO has confirmed that some civilians may have been killed and ordered a formal investigation into the air strike -- the deadliest incident involving German troops since World War Two.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ, and Avril Ormsby in LONDON; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Paul Tait)