South Ossetia’s election officials say Anatoly Bibilov, the speaker of the breakaway Georgian region's parliament, has taken the lead in a presidential election that was rejected by Tbilisi and condemned as “illegitimate” by the United States.
The election commission on April 10 said Bibilov had 48.7 percent with 35 percent of votes counted, Russian state-run TASS news agency reported. A candidate needs 50 percent to avoid a runoff on April 23. Turnout was reported at 81 percent.
TASS quoted Bibilov as claiming he had won 54.9 percent of the vote, avoiding the runoff.
The news agency said 78 percent of voters supported a referendum to change the region’s name to "Republic of South Ossetia - State of Alania," a move also condemned by Georgia and the United States.
Russia recognized South Ossetia, along with another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent countries after fighting a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
It has kept thousands of troops in the regions, deployments NATO says violate the EU-brokered deal that ended the fighting.
The United States and all but a handful of countries consider South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be parts of Georgia.
Mark C. Toner, acting spokesman for the U.S. State Department, on April 7 said the United States did not accept the "illegitimate elections” in South Ossetia and previous ones held in Abkhazia on March 12 and March 26.
"The United States fully supports the territorial integrity of Georgia and its sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders,” he added. “Our position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is clear and consistent. These regions are integral parts of Georgia."
The Georgian Foreign Ministry on April 9 said it “condemns the so-called presidential election and referendum taking place on the grounds of the occupied Tskhinvali region.”
It said the referendum question to change the name of the region was meant to prepare the ground of an illegal annexation by Russia.
With reporting by TASS and Interfax