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Kyrgyz Opposition Says Won Disputed Vote, Vows Protests


Opposition candidate Almazbek Atambaev

Opposition candidate Almazbek Atambaev

BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Kyrgyzstan's opposition leader on July 25 claimed victory over incumbent Kurmanbek Bakiev in this week's presidential election and promised more protests in the Central Asian nation, a focus of U.S.-Russian rivalry.

The impoverished Muslim country is at the centre of a geopolitical struggle between Washington and Moscow for control over Central Asia, a vast expanse of desert and mountain north of Iran and Afghanistan.

Western observers have criticised the election as undemocratic. Official data showed Bakiev won 82.7 percent of the vote in the July 23 poll after 98 percent of votes had been counted. Opposition challenger Almazbek Atambayev had 8 percent.

"You cannot call this an election. We don't recognise it, we demand a repeat vote," Bakyt Beshimov, Atambaev's campaign chief, told reporters, adding the opposition planned nationwide rallies from July 29.

"We can't stand this any more. People must fight for their rights," he said, adding that exit polls conducted by their monitors at virtually all polling stations showed Atambayev winning 60 percent with Bakiyev getting just 25 percent.

The planned protests will take place days before a security meeting in Kyrgyzstan due to be attended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and other leaders of former Soviet states.

Stability in Kyrgyzstan, home to a U.S. and a Russian military air base, is key to efforts by the United States and Russia to contain the spread of violence from Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan, where violent protests in 2005 toppled its long-serving president and brought Bakiev to power, has said Islamist rebels are increasingly active and engaged in a series of gunbattles with extremists in the southern Ferghana Valley.

In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, its broad Soviet-style streets still festooned with Bakiev's huge red and black campaign billboards, life appeared to return to normal.

But tensions still remained high. On July 25, police broke up a rally of local activists held in support of Iran's opposition whose candidate lost a disputed vote last month.

Democracy

In a scathing report, the election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was marred by ballot box stuffing and multiple voting.

The European Union has said it shared OSCE concerns. U.S.-based rights group Freedom House also criticized what it called "the shameful conduct" of the election and urged the international community to put pressure on the government to encourage democratic reforms.

Bakiev has not commented on the conduct of the election. Speaking after talks with OSCE observers on July 25 Kyrgyz Central Election Commission chief Damir Lisovsky said he was "concerned" about the OSCE assessment.

Accused by opponents of exaggerating the Islamist threat to shore up his own power, Bakiev has vowed to use all means to preserve stability. During thevote, police fired in the air to break up a crowd of protesters in a small regional town.

The opposition has criticised Bakiev for tightening his grip on power and rolling back democracy in a country once praised as the beacon of democracy in Central Asia.

A Bishkek resident who gave his name only as Dmitry said he regretted not going to a polling station to vote for the opposition.

"I didn't vote at all. What's the point?" he said. "But now I think I should have. No one likes Bakiev."
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