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Breakaway Region's Leader Looks To Have Avoided Runoff

Abkhazia's de facto leader Sergei Bagapsh
(RFE/RL) -- Abkhazia's de facto president, Sergei Bagapsh, has won a second term as leader of the separatist territory in an election hailed by Russia but considered illegitimate by most of the world.

The vote on December 12 was Abkhazia’s first election since Moscow recognized the Black Sea territory of 200,000 people as an independent state after Russia's brief war with Georgia in August 2008.

The Abkhaz central election commission, citing the first official results on December 13, said Bagapsh won 59.4 percent of the votes – enough to win outright in the first round.

His main challenger, former vice president and ex-KGB agent Raul Khajimba, took 15.4 percent.

Zaur Arjinba, the head of Abkhazia's state shipping company, came in third with 10.8 percent of the vote.

Businessman Beslan Butba, who heads the Economic Development Party of Abkhazia, came in fourth with 7.9 percent of the vote, followed by independent candidate Vitaly Bganba who won 1.5 percent. Final official results are expected later in the week.

All candidates professed loyalty to Moscow and all opposed a return to Georgian rule.

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

The last presidential election in 2004 was marred by a bitter standoff between Bagapsh and Khajimba that ended in unrest in the streets.

No major international organizations monitored the Abkhaz vote, and only Russian and Venezuelan observers were there in an official capacity.

Speaking from Sukhumi, Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza, which broadcasts to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said there were informal observers present from Europe and the United States. Babitsky added, however, that "it isn't clear what organizations they represent."

The elections commission said about 70 percent of the 130,000 registered voters took part in the vote.

The region is also home to some 40,000 ethnic Georgians, most of whom were not eligible to vote because they don't hold Abkhazian passports. More than 200,000 ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia in the early 1990s.

Georgian National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili denounced the election as "illegitimate and amoral."

Tbilisi, which insists Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, still belong to it, has dismissed the election as a "comedy" orchestrated by the Kremlin. Russia championed the vote but stopped short of naming a favorite candidate.

The international community considers the election illegitimate and will officially ignore it. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed Moscow's lead in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which broke away from Georgian rule following wars in the early 1990s.

Speaking at a news conference today, Bagapsh promised to strengthen his region's ties to Moscow, insisting that Abkhazia will never again be part of Georgia.

Russia has deployed thousands of soldiers to Abkhazia and is currently building two military bases there.

With material from news agencies