KABUL - Afghanistan expelled a New York Times reporter on Thursday, accusing him of links to spy agencies in a furious response to a story he wrote saying government ministers and officials were threatening to seize power.

The attorney general said Matthew Rosenberg’s article about the country’s election crisis was ‘contrary to the national interests, security and stability of Afghanistan’ and ordered him to leave the country within 24 hours. The order was the first expulsion of a journalist from Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, highlighting fears for press freedom after 13 years of international aid funding and development.

As Rosenberg was escorted through migration controls by police, the United States embassy issued a sharp criticism of the expulsion, describing it as ‘unjustified and based on unfounded allegations’. Rosenberg tweeted an image of the attorney general’s statement that said: ‘This is not the first time that this reporter has published propaganda, and it appears that he has links with intelligence and spy agencies.’ The New York Times article on Tuesday said that senior Afghan officials were discussing forming a committee-run ‘interim government’ to end a stand-off over the disputed result of the presidential election. Any such move would end international hopes that democracy would be a flagship legacy of the costly US-led military and civilian intervention in Afghanistan.

Both Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist, and former anti-Taliban fighter Abdullah Abdullah have claimed victory in the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai.

The impasse - centred on fraud allegations - has threatened to revive the divisions of the 1990s civil war, when ethnic conflict ravaged Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to seize power.

‘This is a regrettable step backward for the freedom of the press in this country,’ US ambassador James Cunningham said in a statement. ‘There is no mistaking the signal this sends to all journalists.’

Cunningham added he had expressed the US position directly to Karzai, who has had a series of bitter arguments with Washington in recent years. ‘Biased reporting by the NYT, not properly sourced, can be considered nothing but a fabrication,’ Karzai’s spokesman said on Thursday. ‘Referring to unnamed sources at least 17 times in one single article has seriously put into question the credibility of the NYT.’

All media were severely restricted under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, but newspapers, TV stations and websites have proliferated in the last decade. A new president is scheduled to take power before the end of the month, but an audit of all eight million votes to uncover fraud is making slow progress and neither candidate appears ready to admit defeat. The political stalemate comes as US-led NATO troops withdraw and Taliban insurgents launch fresh offensives that have tested the fledging Afghan army and police.