KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Election authorities have fired about 50 employees for suspected fraud in last month’s legislative polls, officials said Sunday, casting a shadow on Afghanistan’s latest step toward democracy.

Some 680 ballot boxes, about 3 percent of votes, have been taken out of the counting process because of suspicions that they were stuffed, said Richard Atwood, chief of operations for the joint U.N.-Afghan election commission. He said “approximately 50” employees had been fired.

But he ruled out a recount, saying, “the fraud that has occurred does not affect the integrity of the election.”

“The fraud is not systematic or widespread across the country,” Atwood told reporters. Election organizers have “done all we can to ensure this fraud is caught.”

Atwood said investigations into fraud had slowed the ballot counting. Almost a month after the Sept. 18 vote, provisional results have been published for only 20 of the 34 provinces.

Accusations of irregularities have sparked demonstrations in several cities, including the capital, Kabul.

“These elections no longer have any meaning. So many bribes have been given. Some candidates have bought their way to power,” said Bashir Bezhen, an official with the state Ariana airlines who ran as an independent candidate in Kabul but lost.

“The counters were shameless in their work. They were like businessmen, making deals with whoever had money. There should be a recount,” Bezhen said.

Many candidates declared winners by provisional results are suspected warlords, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful militia leader who has been accused of war crimes by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Electoral law barred anyone with links to armed groups from competing, but with nearly 2,800 candidates, critics say many warlords slipped through a U.N.-backed review.

At least two former Taliban members have been elected, according to preliminary results. One is Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a front-line general who spent eight months in U.S. detention and now encourages other Taliban members to reconcile with the Afghan government.

Another is Mawlawi Mohammed Islam Mohammadi, who was the governor of Bamiyan province in 2001 when the Taliban blew up two giant 1,500-year-old Buddha statues there, deeming them an affront to Islam.

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