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Bombs and ballot tick

Kabul, Oct. 12: When Mumbai votes tomorrow, Kabul will begin counting its ballots.

Inside a bullet-proof van that is driving through Kabul on its way to a counting centre, Mumbai does not appear to be too far away: the FM radio channel is playing Dhoom machale', taking a break from Britney Spears' I wanna dance with you.

It's hard to believe that only last night during dinner time, four rockets suspected to have been fired by the Taliban from the hills around landed in this city. To those unaccustomed to the routine, the blasts around dinner time were enough to upset the digestion.

The road to the counting centre is in itself a story of this country over the last quarter century. The van stops at the gates of Darualaman Garrison, an establishment of the newly-raised Afghan National Army. The counting centre is inside the fortified military premises surrounded by the foothills of the Hindukush.

On one side of the dusty and broken road is a graveyard of war waste ' mangled steel and aluminium carcasses of cars, overturned armoured personnel carriers, tanks, trucks, the devastated fuselage of two ancient Russian-built transport aircraft and the rusting skeleton of a Russian helicopter gunship.

The security guards frisk thoroughly at the gates, and every five minutes during a short uphill walk through what is still an uncleared minefield and in which there is more war waste. They have cut open a path that zigzags through the field. You can't step out because of the concertina coil to the right and to the left. Everyone walks in single file.

'Danger, UXOs', a notice in red hung on the concertina coil says every few steps. Unexploded ordnance.

Looking down on the counting centre is the new Darualaman Palace, a short distance from the older one, the traditional residence of 'King' Zahir Shah's ancestors. The older one looks like it's been bombed several times. The new one could pass off for another bombed structure but people say it was untouched.

Here, at a counting centre in Kabul, men and women wearing distinctive green and blue satin jackets are opening plastic boxes stuffed with ballots and sorting them out.

Election officials say that with the candidates contesting against interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai withdrawing their objections after a series of discussions involving US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the counting could start early tomorrow morning.

Syed Bukhari, a Bangladeshi staffer of the UN Assistance Mission, said this particular counting centre is for votes from Kabul. Unofficially, 82 per cent are said to have voted here. In the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, the polling percentage was about 79.

S.R. Mehendiratta, an official from the Election Commission of India who is an international representative on the UN-Afghan body, was accompanying its chairman and vice-chairman on a tour of the counting centre. He said the controversy over the ink had arisen because poorly-trained staff had not used the correct marker pens.

Pens used for marking ballot papers were used to mark the finger tips of voters.

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