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Fraud charges mar final stage of Iran polls

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Iranian officials on Thursday delayed releasing final poll results for Tehran amid allegations of vote-rigging in a tight race for the last of the capital's 30 parliamentary seats.

Officials told Reuters they were investigating charges that 100 ballot boxes were stuffed with fraudulent votes. Another 100 boxes had yet to be counted out of a total of 3,111 across the city, they said.

``Some ballot boxes are being recounted. Protests have been made against alleged vote-rigging...especially in the south of Tehran,'' one ministry official said.

``The interior ministry is following up this case results will be released by tomorrow (Friday) night.''

With almost all votes counted, reformists backing President Mohammad Khatami had a firm grip on the top 27 places and were leading in the race for another two seats -- an improvement on an already strong showing in the provinces.

But the fate of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the standard-bearer for the conservative establishment and the only obstacle to a reformist sweep of the capital, hung in the balance.

According to unofficial results, Rafsanjani was clinging to a place in the top 30, but it was uncertain whether he would clear the 25-percent threshold needed to enter parliament in the first round. A strong showing in South Tehran could put him through.

Authorities, under mounting pressure to publish a final tally, had promised final results by noon (0830 GMT) on Thursday. That deadline came and went with no official comment.

However, the ministry assured voters their ballots would be protected.

``The officials in the interior ministry in coordination with Mr Khatami's policies will not allow even one vote to be manipulated,'' Mohammad Qadimi-Zaker, the ministry's director general of elections, told the afternoon daily Aftab-e Emrouz.

Complicating the count is the dual nature of authority for the polls, divided between the reformist government's interior ministry and the conservative clerics who dominate the Guardian Council.

Elections monitors say interior ministry supervisors have refused to sign off on results from the disputed districts, despite approval of the balloting by representatives of the Guardian Council.

Failure to resolve the dispute could force a new election, although analysts said that was unlikely. A meeting was scheduled for later on Thursday between the ministry and the Guardians.

Rival newspapers, meanwhile, fanned the flames of controversy.

``Some people are worried their votes may be tampered with,'' read a front-page headline in the leftist Bayan.

But the conservative afternoon daily Kayhan said the delays were part of a plot to deprive the former president of his rightful seat.

``Lots of efforts are being expended by a certain political current to remove the name of Mr Hashemi Rafsanjani from the list of candidates who have made it to parliament from Tehran,'' it said.

Authorities say they have focused their attention so far on South Tehran, a traditionalist stronghold widely seen as the most favourable grounds for Rafsanjani, a pragmatic cleric and veteran revolutionary.


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