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Vladimir Putin shrugs off poll fraud claims


Vladimir Putin today rejected opposition protests against his presidential election victory and his foreign ministry ruled out any softening of Moscow's stance on Syria, a strong indication that the Russian leader has no intention of easing tough policies at home or abroad.

The harsh statements came after helmeted riot police forcefully broke up Monday's opposition attempt to occupy a Moscow square in a challenge to Mr Putin's victory. They arrested about 250 people who were later released.

Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov defended the police action, saying that it showed a "high level of professionalism, legitimacy and effectiveness", signalling that the government would show no hesitation to use force again on protesters.

Mr Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming prime minister due to term limits, won more than 63% of Sunday's vote. The opposition and independent observers said the election was marred by massive fraud, including so-called "carousel voting" in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.

Mr Putin shrugged off opposition claims of rampant vote fraud as irrelevant today. "It's an element of political struggle, it has no relation to the election," he said.

His campaign has been laced with anti-American sentiment, including claims that the US instigated the opposition protests to weaken Russia - strident rhetoric that resonated well with his core support base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees.

He can be expected to continue the same tough policies he has pursued as prime minister, including opposing US plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.

Russia's foreign ministry dealt a blow to Western hopes that Moscow might drop its support for Syrian president Bashar Assad, saying firmly that it sees no reason to change its stance.

"We are deeply convinced that we are right," deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters. "That is why we call on our partners not to adopt a hardline stance, but to seek compromise, stimulate negotiations and a political process."

Russia has protected Assad from United Nations sanctions over his crackdown on protests and accused the West of fuelling the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition. Moscow has warned it will block any UN resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where Nato action helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Mr Putin himself last week chided the West for refusing to demand that Assad's opponents pull out from the besieged cities along with government troops to end bloodshed, saying that it is the West, not Russia, that should be blamed for the continuing violence.

The Russian foreign ministry also lashed out today at European election monitors, who reported serious problems in the election, including questionable vote counting and a campaign environment strongly skewed towards Mr Putin. A ministry statement called the mission's conclusions "prejudiced and disputable".

The ministry fumed at US ambassador Michael McFaul, who voiced concern about Monday's crackdown, tweeting: "Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are universal values."

The ministry hit back: "The police action was far more gentle than what we have seen during the dispersal of Occupy Wall Street protests and tent camps in Europe."