Ballots were carried by trucks, helicopters and donkeys to counting centers across Afghanistan on Monday, a day after millions voted in elections aimed at bolstering the war-shattered country's aspiration.
Security was tight as workers brought ballot papers from far-flung polling stations to provincial capitals where counting was to start Tuesday to decide who will sit in Afghanistan's first national assembly in more than three decades. Provisional results were expected by early October.
Officials hailed Sunday's elections as a major success although initial estimates suggested voter turnout was lower than hoped for because of security fears and frustrations over the inclusion of several warlords on the ballot.
Taliban rebels had called for Afghans to boycott the vote. Militant attacks killed at least 15 people, including a French commando, in the hours before and during voting - the latest victims of violence that killed more than 1,200 people in the past six months.
But with tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign forces providing security, there were no spectacular assaults. Election officials said no one was killed in attacks near polling stations - although three voters were wounded - and only 16 of the 6,270 stations did not open because of security threats or logistical problems.
The voting for parliament and 34 regional councils was the last formal step toward democracy under an internationally sponsored plan laid out following the ouster of the oppressive Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Many people looked to a big vote to marginalize Taliban rebels whose stubborn insurgency rumbles on in the south and east of the country.
Washington and other governments have poured in billions of dollars trying to foster a civic system that encourages Afghanistan's fractious ethnic groups to work together peacefully and ensure the nation is never again a staging post for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Chief electoral officer Peter Erben said Sunday that "a high number of Afghans" voted. But some officials and independent election monitors said turnout might have been significantly lower than in last October's presidential election, when it was about 75 percent.
The Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a monitoring body partly financed by the U.S. government, estimated 30 percent to 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots, based on observations from 7,500 monitors across the country, the AP reports.
President Hamid Karzai praised voters - who cast ballots in schools, mosques and even desert tents - for coming out "in spite of the terrorism, in spite of the threats."
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18