9:52pm UK, Sunday March 04, 2012
Vladimir Putin has claimed victory in Russia's presidential election, amid allegations from his rivals that voting was marred by fraud.
Speaking at a rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters outside the Kremlin walls in Moscow, the prime minister insisted it had been an "open and honest" contest.
He added: "I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia".
Exit polls suggested the 59-year-old former KGB spy picked up around 60% of the vote - enough to avoid a run-off against the second-placed candidate.
Mr Putin, who was president between 2000 and 2008, is now set to secure a new six-year term in the Kremlin.
His nearest rival in the election, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, is thought to have taken about 17%-18% of votes.
Mr Zyuganov said his party would not recognise the official results of the election, calling it "illegitimate, dishonest and untransparent".
The billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov scored 9%, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky 7%-8%, while ex-parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov was fifth with 4%, the early results showed.
Mr Putin's opponents said voting in many parts of the country was manipulated to help him return to the presidency after four years as PM.
And they vowed to step up the biggest protests since Mr Putin rose to power 12 years ago.
Mr Putin has remained Russia's dominant leader and its most popular politician since stepping aside in 2008 to make way for his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, because he was barred from a third straight term by the constitution.
But some voters are tired of his macho antics - such as horse riding bare-chested - and a system that concentrates power in his hands.
They fear he could win another term in six years and rule until 2024 - almost as long as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
There were reports of widespread voting violations during the election, including allegations people were being bussed around to cast their ballots several times.
The claims of so-called "carousel voting" were being received by independent monitoring group Golos, according to spokeswoman Lilia Shibanova.
Golos said it had registered at least 3,000 reports of violations nationwide - but an interior ministry spokesman said there had been no major violations.
And Mr Putin's campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin said: "This is the cleanest election in Russia's entire history.
"The violations our rivals and the opponents of our president will now speak of are laughable."
In an attempt to allay fears of vote-rigging, Mr Putin ordered the installation of 182,000 web cameras at 91,000 polling stations to stream footage of ballot boxes and vote-counting onto a website during the election.
He voted with his wife Lyudmila at a polling station in the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
Minutes afterwards, a group of topless Ukrainian protesters tried to steal the ballot box with his vote in it.
The three women revealed slogans painted on their chests and backs including "I steal for Putin" and "Kremlin rats", and shouted "Putin is a thief!"
They tried to take the box before being detained by police, said the Femen group, which is known for its topless protests against trafficking of women and prostitution in several countries.
Moscow police described the demonstration as a "provocation", saying the women were taken to a police station where officers were deciding whether they should face charges.