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Afghan commission starts audit of election ballots as gunmen attack Kabul airport

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KABUL - Afghanistan's election commission began auditing ballots Thursday following a U.S.-brokered deal between the two presidential contenders while a brazen attack on the Kabul airport underscored the dangers the country still faces in its troubled democracy.

The pre-dawn rocket attack on Kabul International Airport temporarily shut down the facility and set off a gunbattle with security forces in which four attackers were killed, officials said.

The militants occupied two buildings that were under construction some 700 metres (yards) north of the facility and used them to direct rockets and gunfire toward the airport and international jet fighters flying over Kabul, said Afghan army Gen. Afzal Aman. Several rockets hit the airport but no planes were damaged, he added.

Kabul Police Chief Mohammed Zahir Zahir said four of the attackers were killed and that the attack was halted without any civilian or police casualties. The airport later reopened and operations returned to normal, Zahir said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn assault in a call to The Associated Press.

The airport hosts civilian traffic and serves as a base for NATO-led forces that have been fighting the Taliban and other insurgents for more than a decade. Rocket attacks near the airport are not rare, but are not usually this close.

The attack comes at a tense time in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the disputed second round of a presidential election seen as key to insuring a peaceful transfer of power ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of the year.

Unofficial and disputed preliminary results showed former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai well ahead of his rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

But since fraud was alleged on both sides, the deal negotiated over the weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry provides that every one of the 8 million ballots will be audited under national and international supervision over the next three or four weeks.

"At today's kickoff, 33 boxes were audited, each in the presence of international and domestic observers," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. "And the first day of audits proceeded professionally, sending a good tone for the process."

The prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of the election, along with a Taliban spring offensive seeking to undermine the Western-backed government, had jeopardized a central plank of President Barack Obama's strategy to leave behind a stable state after the withdrawal of most U.S. troops at year's end.

There has been increased urgency for the Afghan government to sign a security pact with the United States that would allow nearly 10,000 American forces to stay in the country for two more years.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term has refused to sign the deal, saying he would leave it to his successor.

Both Abdullah and Ahmadzai have promised to sign the pact, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement.

"We still feel comfortable with the timeline to sign the BSA," said Psaki.

While the audit continues, Karzai remains in office. He had been expected to turn over the reins of his presidency on Aug. 2, but the inauguration of a new president will now await the ballot audit.

The security situation in Afghanistan, which has long seen near-daily attacks, continues to be precarious.

On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew up a car packed with explosives near a busy market and a mosque in eastern Afghanistan, killing dozens of people in one of the deadliest insurgent attacks on civilians since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban.

___

Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to his report.

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