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Kyrgyz Opposition In Russia After Disputed Vote

Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Almazbek Atambaev
BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Kyrgyzstan's opposition leader has headed to Russia seeking to win Moscow's support in his standoff with President Kurmanbek Bakiev following last week's disputed election in the Central Asian nation.

The ex-Soviet republic is at the heart of Russia-U.S. rivalry in the vast region stretching between Afghanistan, Iran, China, and Russia. Courted by both Moscow and Washington, it now hosts a Russian and a U.S. military air base.

The July 23 election, condemned as rigged by the opposition and criticized by Western observers, has stirred up tensions in the Muslim country at a time when the West is concerned with the spread of Islamist militancy from Afghanistan.

Officials results gave Bakiev 76 percent of the vote while opposition challenger Almazbek Atambaev got 8 percent.

On July 27, Atambaev flew to Moscow to discuss the vote.

"He has gone to talk about what happened in Kyrgyzstan on July 23," said Bakyt Beshimov, Atambaev's campaign chief. "They are holding discussions."

Russia largely supports Bakiev's rule and has made it clear it is in favor of his reelection, particularly after he agreed this month to discuss allowing Russia to open another military facility in Kyrgyzstan.

The election, criticized by the European Union, also puts the United States in a potentially awkward position in Central Asia after Washington agreed to pay $180 million this year to keep open its air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has yet to congratulate Bakiev on his victory. Neither Russia nor the United States has explicitly commented on the conduct of the election.

The opposition says the vote was illegitimate and is gearing up for nationwide protests from July 29.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has backed opposition concerns, saying its monitors witnessed widespread cases of ballot box stuffing and multiple voting.

Kyrgyzstan is key to efforts by the United States and Russia to maintain stability in Central Asia -- a region where officials say that Taliban-linked militants are increasingly active.

The impoverished nation has a history of unrest that has worried both Russia and the West. In 2005, violent protests toppled its previous president and brought Bakiev to power. Over past months, Kyrgyz forces have engaged in a series of gun battles with militants in the southern Ferghana Valley.

The authorities have promised to crack down on any illegal forms of protest on July 29. "If they do not have permission then we will act within the framework of law," said an Interior Ministry spokesman. "We will prevent all unlawful actions."