Kabul (AFP) - Afghanistan's delayed presidential election result will be announced on Monday, officials said, as the two candidates wrangle over alleged fraud in a political crisis that threatens the country's first democratic transfer of power.
The five-day delay is to allow an audit of nearly 2,000 of the 23,000 polling stations nationwide in an anti-fraud audit designed to raise confidence in the vote-counting process.
But both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah say they won on clean votes, and neither appears prepared to accept defeat -- triggering the prospect of a power struggle as US-led troops withdraw after 13 years of fighting the Taliban.
"The preliminary result was supposed to be announced today, but because of the inspection of ballot boxes in 1,930 polling stations, it was delayed," Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) chief, said Wednesday.
"This is to guarantee transparency... we don't give in to any pressure on us."
The preliminary result will include all the legitimate votes cast in the June 14 head-to-head run-off election.
Following a period for complaints to be heard, the final result is now expected on July 24.
Abdullah, previously seen as the election front-runner, has boycotted the vote count over alleged fraud, while Ghani said he backed the election commission and claimed victory by more than one million votes.
Ghani, who has consistently urged the IEC to stick to its timetable, said he agreed to the audit.
"Since our votes are clean, and we are confident of the votes of millions of our countrymen, we welcome this decision," he told reporters late Wednesday.
Abdullah also welcomed the audit, but said his boycott remained in place and that more voting stations needed to be checked to clear out "industrial-scale" fraud.
- Impasse risks stoking unrest -
UNAMA, the United Nations' mission in Afghanistan, has said ethnic tensions are rising over the election deadlock and expressed fears of instability as rhetoric between rival supporters sharpens.
"Talks (with both candidates) are ongoing with the mediation of UNAMA and the first vice president," Nuristani told a press conference.
"We hope Dr. Abdullah comes back (from his boycott) and establishes relations with the commission again. It is better to solve issues through negotiations than shedding innocent people's blood to reach the power."
NATO's combat mission will end in December, though about 10,000 US troops may stay into next year on a training and counter-terrorism mission if the new president signs a security deal with Washington.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced Wednesday the US special envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins would step down after just over a year in office.
The veteran diplomat steered negotiations to draw up the security pact, which both presidential candidates have said they would accept if elected. Current President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign the deal.
Recent weeks have seen fierce fighting in the southern province of Helmand, with the Afghan army and police counter-attacking after an offensive by 800 Taliban fighters in an area from which US troops withdrew only in May.
With NATO troops pulling out, the coming months are expected to be a test of the fledging Afghan government forces now responsible for imposing security.
Any delay in appointing a successor to Karzai could undermine anti-Taliban operations and also put billions of dollars of aid pledges at risk.
Earlier on Wednesday a Taliban suicide bomber in Kabul killed eight military officers in an attack on an air force bus carrying staff to work.
Last Friday Abdullah led several thousand protesters on a rowdy demonstration through Kabul, though he has called for all his supporters to remain peaceful.
Any street clashes could ignite wider unrest since Ghani attracts much of his support from the Pashtun tribes of the south and east, while Abdullah's loyalists are Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups.
In the eight-man first-round election on April 5, Abdullah was far ahead with 45 percent against Ghani's 31.6 percent.
Karzai, who has ruled since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term in office.