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About 650,000 Afghan Refugees in Pakistan Enlist to Vote  - 2004-10-04

An international agency says the response to a voter registration drive among Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been overwhelming. In just four days, an estimated 650,000 have registered to vote in the first presidential election in their homeland Saturday.

The International Organization for Migration implemented the U.N.-sponsored registration program in Pakistan, where there are between 2 to 3 million Afghan refugees. Among them, an estimated 800,000 are eligible to vote.

Despite threats against election staff, as well as potential voters and the short time period for registering, IOM spokesman Greg Bearup says the registration process went off without violence or injuries.

"We had no major security incidents whatsoever, which is very good, because we had 65.000 people mobilized," Mr. Bearup said. "The next step will be that those people who have registered will take along their registration slips on October ninth, and they will decide who will be the next Afghan leader for the next five years."

Mr. Bearup says that more than 25 percent of those registered are women. He says, in some refugee camps, conservative Afghan community elders prevented women form taking part in the registration process.

"We tried to do everything we possibly could to change their minds, but there was just nothing that we could do in the end," Mr. Bearup said. "It's hard to change many, many years of resistance to women participating in matters."

The IOM spokesman says the organization has established more than 1600 polling stations in Pakistan's two provinces bordering Afghanistan and in the capital, Islamabad, where Afghan refugees could go and use their right to vote.

More than 10.5 million people have registered in Afghanistan itself to vote in the landmark presidential election later this week. Eighteen candidates, including incumbent President Hamid Karzai, are taking part in the race.

Afghanistan's ousted Taleban and other extremists groups have vowed to disrupt the poll. Before the registration started on Friday, suspected Taleban supporters also distributed anti-election leaflets in refugee camps in Pakistan, saying those who registered to vote would face unspecified "punishments."