United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the top American official at the UN mission in Afghanistan on Wednesday after a widely publicized dispute with his boss over how to deal with widespread fraud charges in the country's presidential election.

UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said in a statement that Ban decided to recall Peter Galbraith and end his appointment as the UN's deputy special representative.

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Peter Galbraith, the then-deputy special representative for Afghanistan, speaks to the Vermont legislature in January, 2007. ((Toby Talbot/Associaated Press))

Diplomats said Galbraith disagreed with the head of the UN mission, Kai Eide, over how the UN should handle the disputed election.

The secretary-general reaffirmed "his full support for Eide" and made his decision "in the best interest of the mission," Montas said.

Neither Galbraith nor Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, have offered details of the disagreement, though Eide has confirmed that the two split over election issues.

Results delayed

The delay in final results from the Aug. 20 vote has led to fears of a power vacuum in the Afghan government that could endure until spring, even as Taliban violence against U.S. and NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians continues to rise. (Canada has about 2,500 troops serving as part of the NATO force.)

Preliminary results show President Hamid Karzai won a majority, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in second place. But proclamation of a winner has been delayed pending a partial recount following allegations of widespread fraud.

Abdullah told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday in Kabul that Galbraith's removal called into question the impartiality of the UN mission and the credibility of the election process.

Galbraith "had been in favour of vigorous investigations into fraud," he said, and his departure "raises questions about the seriousness of the international institutions in the process" of discerning fraud in the election.

Abdullah said he still supports the UN-backed fraud investigation panel but worries about "deliberate delays."

Galbraith was pushing for things to move quickly and pushed for ballot papers to be ordered for a runoff, if needed, he said.

"When somebody who is considered to be serious about this issue is being fired, then the impression it leaves with the people will not be good," Abdullah said. "While still I want to be hopeful about the fraud investigation and the role of ECC [Electoral Complaints Commission] in it, it's not a good sign."

The UN Mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, had a mandate to support the Afghan government in conducting the Aug. 20 election. It also has a mandate to lead international civilian efforts to provide aid, promote reconstruction, combat corruption, help improve civilian-military co-operation, and expand the UN presence throughout the country to promote good governance and the rule of law.

Britain's UN ambassador, John Sawers, said: "We believe Peter Galbraith brought energy and ideas, but there has to be a single leadership on the main issues of policy."

Policy dispute

Sawers said Galbraith and Eide had a policy dispute on UNAMA's post-election role.

"I think it's mainly a question of whether it was the UN's role to determine the validity or otherwise of the election and the results of that election," he said.

"In fact, Mr. Eide is correct in saying that those responsibilities rest with other bodies — the Independent Election Commission and the Election Complaints Commission. They are independent bodies," Sawers said.

Galbraith oversaw electoral matters for the UN before and after the vote. Following allegations of widespread vote-rigging, he reportedly pressed the Election Commission to conduct a wide-ranging recount.

Eide has been criticized for initially praising the election — before the full extent of the fraud became known — and saying it represented "an important achievement" for the people of Afghanistan.