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By Peter Graff and Akram Walizada
KABUL (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan denied accusations on Sunday that he had helped cover up election fraud, and said he still believed a result could be reached that Afghans would find credible.
In strongly-worded remarks at a news conference, Kai Eide said allegations by a U.S. diplomat who was fired as his deputy were false and undermined the election process.
Eide appeared at the news conference flanked by the U.S., British and French ambassadors, which he said was an "expression of international unity in the work that we are doing."
A final result is expected within days in the August 20 vote, held up for weeks by an investigation after a U.N.-backed watchdog found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."
"That's been a difficult process. It's been marred, not least, as you know, by widespread fraud," Eide said. He added it was up to the watchdog to determine the extent of the cheating.
Investigators would still "be able to remove fraudulent votes and honour valid votes," he said. "When the result is being certified it will be a result that is being made on a solid basis, and it should be accepted by the Afghan people."
The Electoral Complaints Commission will announce results of the fraud investigation later this week, either confirming President Hamid Karzai as the victor, or -- if a large share of Karzai's votes are found to be fraudulent -- ordering a run-off.
The final weeks of the process have been overshadowed by a feud between Eide, a veteran Norwegian diplomat, and his American former deputy, Peter Galbraith, who was fired after complaining that Eide turned a blind eye towards fraud.
"ATTACK ON INTEGRITY"
"Yes, it has affected me. It's been an attack on my integrity. It's not been dignified. It's not been fair. It's not been true," Eide said. "It's had an impact on the U.N. mission; it's had an impact on the election process because it's heightened the temperature."
Because Galbraith is a senior U.S. diplomat and known to be close to the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, the feud has been widely interpreted in Western media as a sign that Washington wanted a harder line towards fraud.
U.S. officials say doubt about the legitimacy of the vote is one of the issues they are grappling with while weighing whether to send 40,000 more troops to defend the Kabul government, but they have spent the past few days signalling backing for Eide.
The U.S. State Department issued a brief statement on Friday saying it supported Eide's role in the election. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry did not speak or take questions at Sunday's news conference, but nodded in agreement when Eide referred to support he had received from ambassadors.
Karzai has acknowledged that some fraud took place, but says its extent was exaggerated by the Western media, European monitors and others. Speaking to reporters at his palace on Sunday, he said he expected a result within days.
"Of course, there are outside circles who interfered in our elections and still do so," he said, without identifying them. He said the U.N. mission was not to blame.
"No, the U.N. has had no involvement in ruining Afghanistan's election or has interfered in it," Karzai said.
According to preliminary results, Karzai won 54.6 percent of the vote. After finding "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," the ECC ordered a recount of around 12 percent of ballot boxes, believed to contain more than a quarter of all votes cast.
Officials completed checks of a sample of those suspicious ballots last week and are now working out a final tally.
If the complaints commission throws out enough of Karzai's votes that his tally falls below 50 percent, he must face a run-off against main rival former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah at the end of October or in early November.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Sean Maguire; editing by Robin Pomeroy)