KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan president Hamid Karzai rejected on Monday a demand from his rival in a presidential run-off to sack the country's top election official, setting the stage for a new confrontation.
Tension between Karzai and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah escalated when the ex-foreign minister demanded that the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) be sacked because he was biased towards the incumbent. Abdullah also wanted three cabinet ministers suspended until the election was completed.
"Our ministers and officials, which Abdullah wants sacked or replaced, they have not done anything illegal or against the law that is why we cannot sack or replace them," Karzai was quoted as saying in a statement released by his office.
"In this short period of time, we cannot makes these changes, this will not be for the benefit of the country and will also harm the country," the statement added.
The poll, pitting Karzai who derives much support from Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -- against Abdullah Abdullah, who is backed mainly by Tajiks in the north, is crucial at a time when the insurgency is at its strongest since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
Abdullah gave the authorities until Saturday to sack election chief Azizullah Ludin, but refused to say what he would do if this demand was not met.
"We will wait for the commission's reply until Oct. 31 and until then we suspend all of our relations with the commission," he told reporters in the garden of his house in Kabul.
Abdullah's ultimatum to Karzai fanned speculation that he may pull-out of the election, the first round of which was mired by allegations of widespread fraud, most levelled at Karzai.
A Western diplomat in Kabul said Abdullah's demands for the removal of Ludin, who has been accused of being partial to Karzai, were "completely reasonable".
But Ludin told Reuters he would not stand down.
"No, why should I resign?" Ludin said when asked to respond to Abdullah's demands. "I don't know if the constitution gives (Abdullah) authority to ask of such a thing."
Concerns about a repeat of the fraud have cast a shadow over preparations for the run-off. More than 200 election officials are being sacked or replaced to prevent a repeat of fraud.
Karzai and Abdullah have denied suggestions they could be in talks on a possible power-sharing deal and said that holding the second round was key to strengthening the democratic process.
"Throughout the process we've seen a process of brinkmanship by both candidates," the Western diplomat said, adding however that an abrupt withdrawal by Abdullah was "unlikely".
DEADLY DAY FOR TROOPS, PROTESTS
In one of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in years, the NATO-led force said at least seven U.S. soldiers and three U.S. civilians died in a helicopter crash in western Afghanistan and four U.S. troops were killed in a separate mid-air helicopter collision in the south.
Although NATO said neither crash was caused by hostile fire, the incidents highlighted the risks foreign troops in Afghanistan face, as U.S. President Barack Obama deliberates whether to send additional troops there.
Underscoring many Afghans' unease with the presence of foreign forces, hundreds of people gathered in central Kabul on Monday chanting "Down with American", throwing stones and clashing with police while protesting against what they said was the desecration of a copy of the Koran by foreign troops.
For the second consecutive day, police fired into the air to break up the crowd as protesters prepared to set fire to a crudely made effigy of Obama outside the parliament building.
Protesters say NATO forces burned a copy of Islam's holiest book during a raid in eastern Afghanistan last week.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan has denied any involvement and blamed the Taliban for spreading false rumours.
Police arrested up to 30 people, a Reuters witness said. At least one police officer was injured in the clashes, another witness said.
Hundreds of people also gathered in the western city of Herat on Monday in related anti-U.S. protests, a Reuters witness said.
Afghanistan has seen protests in the past over similar incidents, as well as over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper in 2006.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina and Golnar Motevalli; additional reporting by Ahmad Masood, Maria Golovnina and Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)