Presidential candidates in the war-ravaged country began two months of campaigning on February 2 for an election that Washington and its allies hope will bring much-needed stability before US-led troops exit after 13 years of inconclusive war.

Karzai, 56, said his government will ensure "transparent and fair" elections to be held on April 5.

"Surely, from our side, it will be transparent and fair and that's what Afghanistan needs and I hope also that United States and its Western allies will make sure that they refrain from interference and that they allow Afghans to cast their vote and to elect their president," he said on Saturday in Afghanistan's second largest city.

He was speaking after he jointly inaugurated Afghanistan's first agriculture university, built with Indian aid, with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.

Karzai is ineligible to seek a third term and among the front-runners in the polls are his elder brother, Qayum Karzai, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf.

The Afghan President's refusal to sign the security pact has strained relations with the US. Karzai further escalated tensions last Thursday by releasing 65 Taliban militants from a former US prison at Bagram near Kabul.

If the security pact is not signed, the Pentagon's biggest challenge will be closing huge military facilities like those in Bagram and Kandahar.

US-led combat operations in Afghanistan are set to end by the end of this year, but the Obama administration is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counter-terrorism and training missions.


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