Four aid workers including a British woman were kidnapped in Afghanistan as election officials ordered recounts in seven provinces after last week's parliamentary vote, raising further concerns of misconduct and fraud during the polls.
The British aid worker and three Afghan colleagues were ambushed as they traveled in two vehicles in northeastern Kunar province. Police fought a gunbattle with the kidnappers near the ambush site before the assailants fled, Kunar police chief Khalilullah Zaiyi said.
Local Taliban commander Mohammad Osman claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and demanded a swap with a Pakistani woman jailed last week in the United States, according to Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. The report said British officials would not verify the claim, but it noted that U.S. and British authorities are in contact about Osman's assertions.
"We are lucky that we abducted this British woman soon after the ruthless ruling by an American court on Aafia Siddiqui," the newspaper quoted Osman as telling an Islamic Afghan press association it described as closely aligned with militants. "We will demand the release of Aafia Siddiqui in exchange for her."
A federal judge in New York sentenced Pakistani scientist Siddiqui to 86 years in prison last week for attempting to kill her U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan. Siddiqui's sentenced sparked protests in Pakistan, and the country's prime minister said Friday he'd fight for her release.
Steven O'Connor, communications director for Development Alternatives Inc., a global consulting company based in the Washington, D.C., area, said late Sunday night that its employees, including a British national, were involved.
The company works on projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan.
Britain's Foreign Office in London said it could "confirm that a British national has been abducted in Afghanistan. We are working closely with all the relevant local authorities."
The ministry said it had contacted the abducted person's family, and was offering help. It also said that publication of the woman's identity could put her at further risk.
Meanwhile, two NATO troops, whose nationalities were not announced, were killed in a bomb attack in the volatile south. NATO also said Sunday its forces had killed five insurgents in a multi-day clearing operation near the main southern city of Kandahar. Afghan and mostly U.S. forces have been readying a push to drive out militants from the Taliban stronghold.
According to a NATO statement Sunday, the militants fought back with rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun and small-arms fire. It said no Afghan or coalition troops were killed in the operation.
The push in Kandahar is seen as key to the Obama administration's strategy to turn around the nine-year war as insurgents undermine the ability of an Afghan government to rule much of the country.
President Hamid Karzai's administration is also struggling to win public support amid widespread perceptions it is inept and corrupt.
Messy looking election
The increasingly messy-looking election risks becoming another black mark against the government as allegations mount of misconduct and fraud. The charges — submitted by election observers and many of the 2,500 candidates vying for 249 seats in the national parliament — range from ballot-box stuffing, to people voting multiple times or using obviously fake cards, to children voting.
A government anti-fraud elections watchdog said Sunday that is has received more than 3,500 complaints of cheating or misconduct — about 57 percent of them serious enough that they could affect the outcome of a vote.
The election commission has been releasing results very slowly, partly because they say they want to be as careful as possible in their work. They are avoiding tallying results were there are suspicions of fraud. So far, only seven provinces of the country's 34 provinces have posted even partial results and, eight days after the vote, no province has yet to announce results in full.
Commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi said they have already ordered recounts at several polling stations in seven provinces because the commission considered the provisional results — yet to be posted — "suspicious." The provinces range from relatively peaceful Badakhshan province in the north to volatile Khost and Logar in the east. He said the list of recounts was likely to grow.
But some candidates say the cheating that their observers saw was so egregious that they can't imagine a proper result emerging from the ballots that were submitted.
"The night before there was stuffing of the boxes. Then the night after they were stuffing the boxes," said Khaled Pashtoun, an incumbent candidate in Kandahar province.
Pashtoun said that while voting in Kandahar city was relatively fair because of the large presence security forces, abuses were rife in rural areas, including by police.
The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the main independent Afghan observer group, has also been intensely critical. The group said that they observed ballot-box stuffing in 280 voting sites in 28 provinces.
The Electoral Complaints Commission has just a few weeks to investigate and rule on the deluge of complaints. Final results are expected in late October, after the ECC rulings.
The commission comprises three Afghans and two foreigners. One member, South African judge Johann Kriegler said the number of complaints was not likely to become a barrier to meeting the deadline, but working with inexperienced provincial staff would make the job more difficult.
However, he said: "We've got to finish on time. That's what the law requires and that's what the political reality requires," he said.