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US Envoy, Afghan Incumbent President Have Tense Exchange Over Runoff

A private lunch meeting between incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke is reported to have turned testy when Holbrooke raised the issue of vote-rigging and fraud.

A U.S. official said the day after the August 20 Afghan election, Holbrooke urged Mr. Karzai to "respect the election process" whatever the result, whether or not a runoff was necessary. The official said Mr. Karzai reacted angrily.

A U.S. state department spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, denied reports that Mr. Karzai had stormed out of the meeting. She reiterated the administration's previous statements of neutrality on the election outcome.

Mr. Karzai had enjoyed strong support from the U.S., but that support has been eroding lately.

On Thursday, a U.S. State Department spokesman expressed concern over reports that one of Mr. Karzai's vice-presidential running mates is involved in drug trafficking.

With about 17 percent of the votes counted, Mr. Karzai is in the lead. But the partial count does not give him the more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

Mr. Karzai and his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed victory after the election.

Afghan election officials cautioned the vote totals are still too small to predict the final outcome of the election, which is already marred by claims of widespread fraud.

They said they would not release the next batch of partial results until at least Saturday.

Final results are not due until next week at the earliest.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.