KABUL- Partial Afghan election returns released on Saturday showed President Hamid Karzai extending his lead in last week's vote, but still falling short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
Afghanistan has been on tenterhooks since the Aug 20 election, with official results coming out in slow drips, Karzai's camp claiming victory and his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, alleging widespread fraud.
With results from about a third of polling stations tallied, Karzai leads Abdullah by 46.3 percent to 31.3 percent.
The latest results extend Karzai's lead substantially from earlier partial figures, but they still suggest he would face a run-off, which must be held if no candidate wins more than 50 percent, scheduled for early October.
Results have been coming in at different rates from different provinces, so it is difficult to guess at the final outcome. Votes could also be thrown out by a complaints watchdog which says it is probing more than 2,000 accusations of fraud and abuse, including 270 serious enough to alter the outcome.
Western diplomats have said it is still too close to say whether Karzai can avoid a second round.
Southern provinces, which largely support Karzai, have been late to report. They are also the areas where many of the fraud allegations have been concentrated, and where Taliban violence and threats were most successful in scaring away voters.
Officials have still not given any figure for overall turnout. With 35 percent of polling stations tallied, there were more than two million votes recorded, suggesting total turnout of around 6 million, although officials warn against extrapolating.
The turnout appears disappointing in a country of about 30 million people, with an estimated 15 million eligible voters.
TEST FOR OBAMA
Taliban militants had vowed to disrupt the election and fired scores of rockets at towns and cities on polling day. The attacks failed to prevent the election from taking place, prompting Western officials to describe the election as a success.
Those assessments have since grown more circumspect, with reports of very low turn-out in some violent southern provinces and mounting allegations of fraud.
The election is also a test for the strategy of President Barack Obama, who has rushed thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan in a bid to reverse Taliban gains. There are now more than 100,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, including 63,000 Americans, about half of whom arrived this year.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, is finalizing a review and may ask for still more.
U.S. and British forces have launched major advances into Taliban-held territory, taking by far the worst casualties of the eight-year-old war. In Britain's case, the casualties have been its worst in combat in a generation, mostly from roadside bombs.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an unannounced visit to southern Helmand province on Saturday, saying he wanted more Afghan troops to share the burden of fighting the Taliban.
Brown has been under fire back home from retired commanders and critics who say he has failed to send enough troops or equipment to keep British forces safe. A new poll showed nearly two thirds of Britons want to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The election has exposed tension between Karzai, once the darling of the West, and U.S. officials, who have acknowledged that meetings between Karzai and White House envoy Richard Holbrooke after the election were tense.
Washington has in particular expressed concern about the return of Uzbek ex-militia chief Abdul Rashid Dostum, viewed by Western officials as a warlord, who came back from apparent exile in Turkey days before the election to campaign for Karzai.
A spokesman for Dostum said on Saturday that he had again left the country, returning to Turkey.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft at CAMP BASTION; Editing by David Fox)