Putin's man poised to win Chechen presidency by a landslide

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Conflict-weary Chechens went to the polls to elect a new president yesterday ­ three months after the last one was assassinated ­ in a ballot that looked certain to endorse Russian leader Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate.

Conflict-weary Chechens went to the polls to elect a new president yesterday ­ three months after the last one was assassinated ­ in a ballot that looked certain to endorse Russian leader Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate.

Voting passed off peacefully amid tight security, with one notable exception: a young man presumed to be a separatist suicide bomber blew himself up outside a polling station in Grozny after being challenged by police.

Nobody else was hurt and Russian television showed matter-of-fact images of sand being shovelled onto a pool of blood where the bomb, concealed in a plastic carrier bag, detonated.

Major-General Alu Alkhanov, the republic's tall, moustachioed Interior Minister and the Kremlin's preferred candidate, appeared to be well ahead last night. The state-owned Itar-tass news agency reported that preliminary results based on the first 25,000 votes counted showed that Alkhanov won had won 72.2 percent of the vote.

The 47-year-old policeman faced little credible opposition. The other six candidates were virtual unknowns, the only other serious contender had been barred from standing on a spurious technicality and Maj-Gen Alkhanov got hours of pre-election television coverage denied to his rivals. Moscow hopes that he will bring a measure of peace and stability to a region shattered by a decade of brutal on-off war between rebel separatists and Russian troops.

Incongruously, Maj-Gen Alkhanov will also be expected to wipe out the independence-minded rebels, who show no signs of giving up the fight. The rebels have already said they consider yesterday's elections a farce designed to install a Russian stooge and have vowed to murder Maj-Gen Alkhanov.

The Chechen presidency is not for the faint-hearted ­ three of the previous incumbents were murdered. The last one, Akhmad Kadyrov, was blown up in the capital, Grozny, as he reviewed a military parade.

The atmosphere in the region is fraught, following a bloody rebel incursion into Grozny the week before, which left up to 70 dead, and indications that the probable suicide bombing of two Russian airliners last week was carried out by two Chechen women. Up to 80,000 Russian troops and 14,000 pro-Moscow police were deployed and access to polling stations was through metal detectors only.

Roads leading up to polling stations were blocked with tree trunks and other obstacles to guard against suicide bombings. And the streets of Grozny were reported to be much quieter than usual.

"Everyone is afraid of more rebel strikes," said Aminat Daatova, a 47-year-old resident of Grozny who said almost everyone in her hostel had left the capital. "If I could I would leave too but I have nowhere to go."

The acting Interior Minister, Ruslan Alkhanov (a relative of the presidential favourite), poured scorn on such talk. "Anyone who looks at the situation in Chechnya can see that the streets of Grozny are filled with people and that voting is proceeding actively at polling stations." Officials were quick to say turnout had exceeded the 30 per cent legal threshold.

More than 585,000 people are registered to vote in the republic of over one million people. But with 75 per cent of the population unemployed, reliable electricity and telephone services largely non-existent and hundreds of people kidnapped every year, life is bleak.

Rebels continue to clash with Russian forces on an almost daily basis and, 10 years after it was first bombed by Russian jets, Grozny still resembles a desolate moonscape in many places. "People are sick of the fighting," said 65-year-old voter Tashtyele Yarnasa.

The Kremlin said it wants Grozny to be rebuilt, mostly with private money, and that it is keen for the region's infrastructure to be systematically pieced back together.

Some voters said they supported Maj-Gen Alkhanov because he would do Moscow's bidding in this regard. But others felt disenfranchised. "My vote doesn't matter," said Isa, 36, a Chechen in a refugee camp. "We don't choose the president. Moscow appoints him."

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