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Incumbent Bagapsh Wins Abkhaz Vote

Abkhazia's leader Sergei Bagapsh

Abkhazia's leader Sergei Bagapsh

SUKHUMI (Reuters) -- The rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia re-elected President Sergei Bagapsh, preliminary election results showed, in a vote hailed by protector Russia but shunned by most of the world.

Abkhazia held its first election on December 12 since Moscow recognized the Black Sea territory as an independent state after a brief war with Georgia last year. The vote was branded a farce by Georgia.

According to preliminary results released December 13, Bagapsh secured 59.37 of the vote, almost four times that of second-placed former KGB agent Raul Khajimba on 15.44 percent, the central election commission said.

Russian election observers said voting was fair and transparent, but Khajimba complained of widespread irregularities and threatened to challenge the result.

Brief volleys of celebratory gunfire greeted the result in the sleepy seaside capital, Sukhumi.

The election was seen as a test of stability in Abkhazia, which threw off Georgian rule in a vicious 1992-93 war.

The last presidential election in late 2004 saw Khajimba challenge results that gave Bagapsh victory, and a standoff ended in unrest in the streets.

Russia did not want to be embarrassed by a repeat, having recognized Abkhazia in August last year after crushing an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on Abkhazia's fellow breakaway territory of South Ossetia in a five-day war.

The West will not recognize Bagapsh as leader of an Abkhaz state, but the territory is watched closely for its ability to stir friction between Russia and Georgia in the volatile Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to the West.

Bagapsh was able to draw on the fact the territory of 200,000 people was recognized by Russia, then Venezuela and Nicaragua under his watch.

But some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, accuse him of handing too much influence to former Soviet master Russia, on which Abkhazia depends for pensions, investment and at least half its budget.

Some 3,600 Russian servicemen patrol its borders and stunning coastline, where Stalin's luxurious dacha still stands.