KABUL (Reuters) - The dusty ballot box from the disputed Afghan presidential election was supposed to contain 550 votes. When auditors cut the seal they found barely 30 votes inside.
Both candidates cried foul, accusing the other camp of stealing votes from a June 14 run-off presidential ballot, the results of which are still being squabbled over amid allegations of widespread vote rigging.
"Both camps argued over one result sheet for hours," an Independent Election Commission (IEC) official told Reuters.
Eventually a United Nations official stepped in, and told the two sides to move on and let the IEC investigate.
Preliminary results from the election put Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, well ahead, but his rival Abdullah Abdullah rejected the result, claiming major fraud and calling the outcome a "coup" against the Afghan people.
His supporters threatened to form a parallel government, and Afghans weary of civil war, hardline Islamist rule under the Taliban and a vicious insurgency that has struck civilians as well as soldiers began to fear the worst.
More than 1,500 Afghan civilians have died in the insurgency during the first six months of the year, although the Taliban failed to deliver on its promise to derail the vote entirely as millions of people turned out in defiance.
U.S. DEAL IN JEOPARDY
After direct U.S. intervention earlier this month, both sides agreed to a full recount to resolve the dispute, but with more than 23,000 ballot boxes to audit, observers worry that the process is becoming bogged down by rows over every detail.
If that happens, talks to form a unity government just as thousands of foreign troops prepare to leave the country could drag on for months.
Moreover, the snail's pace at which the recount is moving will push back the inauguration of a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted in a U.S.-led war in 2001.
The ceremony was scheduled for the start of August, and major delays could complicate plans to sign an agreement by the end of 2014 to keep about 10,000 U.S. troops in the country.
By Thursday, after eight days of counting, only about 1,000 ballot boxes had been examined, IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor told a news conference in Kabul.
He conceded the process was moving forward slowly, partly due to staffing constraints over the holy month of Ramadan, and because it was not well organised.
"(And) there are still disagreements between both camps about the invalidation of fraudulent votes. For example, both camps ... argued for four hours over one ballot box," Noor said.
The United Nations said it had been unable to get both sides to agree on a common text for scrutinising votes, which would allow for a recount once fraudulent votes are thrown out.
AFGHANISTAN'S 'HANGING CHAD'
The scrutiny mirrors the "hanging chads" of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when George W. Bush won Florida, and in turn the presidency, by a few hundred votes after officials debated which absentee ballots and punch ballots with hanging flaps to count.
Just over a week into the Afghan recount, the audit has already been suspended twice due to disputes over how the process is conducted.
The recount is the first step towards a new administration. Next, the two candidates must sit down and iron out a more complicated agreement - the composition of a unity government.
The bitter standoff has quashed hopes of a smooth transition of power after Karzai.
In a bid to break the impasse, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul to secure a political agreement with Ghani and Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
The solution that pacified both parties, at least temporarily, was an ambitious, U.N.-supervised audit of all eight million votes - an exercise aimed at appeasing Abdullah.
It was designed both to weed out illegal votes and soften the blow for the losing candidate by introducing the idea of a unity government in which there would be both a president and a prime minister who would enjoy some powers.
But those talks have yet to start.
"We have agreement in general about the unity government, but on details both presidential candidates should sit down and talk," said Tahir Zaheer, a spokesman for Ghani.
Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07, is doubtful that Abdullah and Ghani can work together.
"If a unity government means a part-coalition then it probably won't work as authority will be too divided and power squabbles would be frequent," Neumann told Reuters.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)