Afghan run-off cancelled as Abdullah pulls out

Karzai is declared president as closest rival pulls out of run-off

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has declared Hamid Karzai the elected president of Afghanistan, after the planned second round of the vote was scrapped.

The presidential run-off, scheduled for next Saturday, was cancelled by poll officials following yesterday's withdrawal of Dr Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai's closest rival. Abdullah pulled out after nearly all of his demands for changes to the IEC were rejected.

He had also called for the suspension of government ministers, which he said would reduce the likelihood of massive fraud being repeated in the next round of voting.

An emotional Abdullah told thousands of supported in Kabul that he had no choice but to withdraw "because of the action taken by this government and the action taken by the Independent Election Commission".

Later, he told the BBC: "It was a hard decision and a painful decision for me, but I did it... I thought that it would be in the best interests of the country if I decide not to participate."

At a news conference in Kabul, IEC spokesman Azizullah Lodin said: "We declare Hamid Karzai, which [sic] got the majority of votes in the first round and [since] he is the only candidate for the second round... be declared as elected president of Afghanistan."

He said the second round was being scrapped to save money, for security reasons and to prevent further setbacks which could damage Afghanistan politically and economically.

Responding to Abdullah's withdrawl, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that she respected Abdullah's choice, urging him to continue to work for peace. She said: "We will support the next president and the people of Afghanistan, who seek and deserve a better future."

Gordon Brown said: "Dr Abdullah has pulled out of the election in the interests of national unity." He said that he had told Karzai that he must form an "inclusive administration" that could tackle corruption and build up popular local government.

Both the US and the UK had previously supported a run-off, following the widespread fraud which discredited the first round of voting in August.However, senior diplomats were concerned about the danger to foreign and Afghan troops who would oversee the poll amid Taliban violence aimed at disrupting it.

The run-off was intended to give the Afghan regime some legitimacy. Commentators have said that its cancellation is the least desirable outcome.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Kabul, said that Afghanistan's troubled election was among "the most difficult the United Nations has ever supported".