KABUL — Afghanistan began counting votes on Sunday in parliamentary elections tainted by allegations of fraud and a low voter turnout after widespread and deadly Taliban violence targeted the key poll.
Western supporters praised the 3.6 million Afghans who, according to preliminary figures, took part in Saturday's election, compared with the 4.8 million valid votes cast in last year's presidential poll.
NATO said that 18 Afghans were killed as the war-scarred country voted for only its second parliament since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban, making it nearly as violent as the fraud-stained presidential election.
Election observers said polling day was rife with complaints of delayed poll station opening, intimidation, ineligible voters, misuse of registration cards, proxy voting, poor ink quality and shortages of ballot papers.
Ahmad Zia Rafaat, spokesman for the Electoral Complaints Commission, said the body was still compiling reports of irregularities.
"Since the beginning of voting yesterday up to now we keep receiving complaints.... So far the main types of complaints are the bad quality of indelible ink and use of fake voting cards," he said.
Among those who complained was monitoring group the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), which said that voting had been affected by insecurity, violence and irregularities including ballot stuffing.
"Taking these problems into account, FEFA has serious concerns about the quality of the elections," the monitoring group said.
Violence was expected after the Taliban announced it would attack polling centres, election workers and anyone who turned out to vote.
Insurgents fired rockets in several cities and set off bombs at a polling station and beside a convoy carrying the governor of Kandahar, the Taliban's southern stronghold, but officials said several more attacks were foiled.
More than 2,500 candidates contested 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. Among them, 406 women were vying for 68 seats reserved for them under legislation designed to better their rights.
Stressing that it was not a final figure, Fazil Ahmad Manawi, the country's senior election official, said that 3,642,444 votes had been cast at 4,632 polling centres, according to preliminary data.
"This makes 40 percent of the maximum number of voters," he said.
In last year's presidential election, more than 5.5 million ballots were cast but only 4.8 million were considered valid, according to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission.
The United States congratulated Afghanistan on conducting its first "fully Afghan-led parliamentary elections... under extremely difficult circumstances".
"As expected, the Taliban made their best efforts to disrupt this important day through violence and intimidation, but the Afghan people who voted defied them," a statement released by the US embassy in Kabul said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised voters for their "courage and determination," according to a UN statement.
Ban's statement was echoed by the European Union, which said: "These elections constitute an important and visible sign of Afghan sovereignty and underline the will of the Afghan people to shape the future of their country".
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen lauded Afghanistan's citizens for braving Taliban violence.
"I congratulate the Afghan people today on the parliamentary elections, despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people's most basic democratic right," he said in a statement.
NATO figures provided to AFP showed a total of 485 violent incidents on Saturday, compared to 479 on August 20 last year, the day of the presidential election.
Preliminary results are expected on Wednesday, with final certified results due on October 31.
Karzai -- whose own re-election last year was mired in massive fraud and recorded a turnout of 33 percent -- had called on people to vote to take their country "forward to a better future".
The United States and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have almost 150,000 troops in the country fighting to bring an end to the long war, now dragging towards its tenth year.
US General David Petraeus, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, commended the role played by the Afghan national security forces, who were supported by ISAF troops in providing security.
"The voice of Afghanistan's future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks. It belongs to the people," Petraeus said.