Manhunt launched after Putin's rival goes missing

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The Independent Online

One of the challengers to Vladimir Putin in next month's presidential elections has disappeared, sparking a nationwide manhunt by Russia's security service.

Ivan Rybkin, an ally of the exiled tycoon and Kremlin nemesis Boris Berezovsky, has not been heard from since Thursday last week. His campaign manager, Ksenia Ponomaryova, and his wife, Albina, filed a missing person report with police yesterday.

The Russian authorities say that a nationwide search, spearheaded by the country's security service, the FSB, will be launched.

Mr Rybkin, the leader of the Liberal Russia party, had been complaining of harassment by the FSB, which he accused of searching his Moscow campaign headquarters, seizing documents and computers and detaining a staff worker.

A former parliamentarian and Yeltsin-era Kremlin official, Mr Rybkin is viewed as a mouthpiece for Mr Berezovsky, the main financier behind Liberal Russia. Mr Berezovsky, who fled Russia after being charged with fraud, has been granted political asylum in the United Kingdom.

Although he is a little-known politician, whose popularity is rated at less than 1 per cent by most public opinion agencies, Mr Rybkin had promised to liven up an otherwise lacklustre election season with his criticism of the Kremlin.

In a full-page campaign advertisement in the newspaper Kommersant, owned by Mr Berezovsky, Mr Rybkin accused Mr Putin of being a dictator who usurped power in Russia and is guilty of many "state crimes".

In addition to Mr Putin, whose public approval rating is more than 70 per cent, six contenders are competing for Russia's presidency. Most are political lightweights, or virtual unknowns. But the list includes the outspoken liberal Irina Khakamada, and the left-wing nationalist Sergei Glazyev, both of whom were registered yesterday by the Central Electoral Commission.

Mr Rybkin was cleared to run in the 14 March election on Saturday, two days after his disappearance. The election campaign officially opens next week.

Two of Liberal Russia's leading members have been assassinated in the past two years.

In April last year, Sergei Yushenkov, a longtime Duma deputy, Kremlin critic and the party's co-chairman, was gunned down at the entrance to his Moscow apartment building.

In August 2002 another party co-chairman, Vladimir Golovyov, was shot in an apparent contract killing while walking his dog in a Moscow suburb.

¿ Russians gathered yesterday on an underground train platform to remember the victims of the deadliest attack on the Moscow metro system.

A bomb exploded in a train carriage on Friday which was carrying hundreds of commuters to the city centre. The rush hour explosion, which President Putin blamed on Chechen rebels, killed 39 people and injured more than 100.