President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday was officially declared the winner of Afghanistan's first-ever democratic presidential election more than three weeks after votes were cast, giving him a five-year mandate to try to steer this country out of a quarter-century of civil war and strife.

The announcement was made by officials of the Joint Electoral Management Body, a U.N. and Afghan agency that organized the Oct. 9 vote, after a team investigating allegations of election day voting fraud concluded that the irregularities that existed were insufficient to overturn Karzai's commanding lead.

"This was a commendable election, particularly given the challenging circumstances," an investigating panel of three foreign experts concluded. The panel acknowledged that "there were shortcomings" but said that "these concerns could not have materially affected the overall result of the election."

So Karzai, who had strong support from the Bush administration and was long considered the front-runner after being appointed as the interim leader, was officially named the winner with 55.4 percent of the vote -- an overall majority and enough to avoid a runoff. He was more than 39 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Yonus Qanooni, his former interior and education minister.

The conclusion to the election, however, was overshadowed by the ongoing drama over three foreign U.N. election workers kidnapped last Thursday by insurgents linked to the ousted Taliban government. It was the first such kidnapping of foreigners in the capital, Kabul, and immediately raised fears that militants might be adopting a technique used by insurgents in Iraq.

The kidnappers had originally threatened to kill the hostages by midday Wednesday if their demands were not met. The demands included the release of all Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners from U.S. military detention facilities here and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. But a spokesman for the Army of Muslims, the group officials believe is holding the hostages, told news agencies that the deadline had been extended for an unspecified period and that negotiations were continuing between the group and a government mediator. The government appealed on television Wednesday night for information about the hostages.

Afghan and U.N. officials declined to discuss the details of the negotiations, but security experts said they believed that contact had been made with the hostage-takers and the Army of Muslims, a small, radical faction that broke away from the Taliban movement headed by Mohammad Omar, who is being pursued by U.S. forces.

The kidnappings of other foreigners in Afghanistan, most of them Indian and Turkish contract workers employed by a firm rebuilding a road between Kabul and Kandahar, have been resolved with the payment of ransom.

On Tuesday, Afghan religious leaders, through the Afghan Ulema Council, issued a statement saying the kidnappings "can only defame Islam and have no other result." The statement said the council "asks those who have taken these people hostage to release them."

Afghan women in Kabul wait for food relief being distributed by the International Islamic Organization in honor of the holy month of Ramadan. Meanwhile on Wednesday, the group believed to be holding three U.N. election workers said it was talking to a government mediator.Hamid Karzai won a five-year presidential term with 55.4 percent of the vote. The election was Oct. 9.