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Violence stalks the candidates in Russian poll

In any advanced and stable democracy, Grigory Beryozkin's story would probably have been dismissed as a cheap attempt to gain publicity before Sunday's elections. But in Russia, where bloodshed and politics go hand in hand, it is depressingly plausible.

Mr Beryozkin, who is running for a seat in Moscow, claims to have been approached by a man offering to kill or maim his political opponents. The man had a price list: a car "crash" would set a client back $7,000 (pounds 4,500); bomb attacks could be arranged for only $15,000.

Given recent events, it is possible the would-be assassin, or others of his ilk, has picked up some business. For the elections to the State Duma, or lower house, are spawning a list of incidents - shootings, bombings, mysterious accidents - that would more commonly be associated with a remote, tinpot dictatorship.

At the weekend, Vitaly Savitsky, who led the Christians of Russia faction, became the third candidate to die on the campaign trail in less than three weeks. His chauffeur-driven car collided with a Mercedes in St Petersburg when he was returning from a radio interview. Police said it was an accident, typical of the icy winter conditions in the northern city; his colleagues said it was murder.

On Monday, thousands of people turned out for a funeral in the Ural mountains for Mikhail Lezhrev, who was mysteriously shot to death outside his home in Chelyabinsk, where he was a candidate for the government-backed Our Home Is Russia party. Nor has there yet been any conclusive explanation why someone pumped a bullet into the head of Sergei Markidonov, 34, a deputy campaigning for re-election, while he was in a hotel room in the Siberian city of Petrov-Zabaikalsky on 26 November.

There have been other puzzling incidents. A liberal parliamentarian, Anatoly Shabad, of the Russia's Choice faction, is in hospital for injuries after being run over by a car in Moscow while he was crossing the street. A week ago a powerful explosion wrecked the office of an extreme right- wing deputy inside the Russian parliament building, without causing serious injuries. Police in the Caucasus are investigating an incident in which an independent candidate's car ended up being blasted by bullets.

It will be a while before Russians know which of these incidents were the result of bad luck and which were caused by mafia feuding, political skulduggery, or other factors. But they are enough to spur the Russian Interior Ministry into action: it has pledged to flood the streets with police to prevent further bloodshed before the elections.

n A few dozen oil workers and their families in two villages in Russia's far north began a hunger strike yesterday to demand decent living conditions and pay. In the Moscow region, two dozen coal miners continued an underground hunger strike for a fifth day, with similar demands.