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UN Envoy Hopes Afghanistan Will Meet Election Deadline Despite Difficulties - 2004-02-18

The top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan says he hopes national elections can be held by June as originally planned, but he cautions that rushing the process to meet the deadline would be a mistake.

U.N. envoy Jean Arnault acknowledged that the registration of Afghan voters is encountering difficulties.

The international agreement that established Afghanistan's transitional government in 2001 after the fall of the hard-line Taleban regime calls for general elections to be held by this June.

Mr. Arnault told reporters in Kabul that, to help meet this deadline, Afghan authorities and the United Nations are planning to speed up the registration process, with about 4200 centers to be set up by May.

Registration has been slow, with only one million of the estimated 10.5 million eligible voters signed up.

But Mr. Arnault says forcing a vote in June to meet the deadline would be a mistake, if it means a large number of Afghans are not given a chance to take part in the vote.

"We have to be very careful that, while we register as thoroughly as possible, we don't do it in a messy way, that we would then pay (for) at the time of elections," he said.

Registration has been delayed, in part, by an anti-government insurgency, led by Taleban remnants and their allies.

Mr. Arnault called on international troops helping to provide security in the country to stick to their commitment to create a safe environment for the elections.

Some observers also fear that Afghanistan's scores of semi-independent local militias may try to manipulate the vote in the areas they control.

Mr. Arnault says more action is needed to disarm the militias and encourage political freedom to keep the elections fair.

"Much more has to happen, so that people feel these are credible elections and not just the ratification of those in power at local levels," he said.

Election organizers are also calling for greater efforts to sign up women voters.

Roughly 25 percent of those registered so far are women, with female participation especially low in the relatively conservative south and east of the country.