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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Explosion Tarnishes Chechen Election

GROZNY -- A man blew himself up as he fled a polling station in central Grozny on Sunday in the only violence to tarnish Chechnya's election for a president to replace slain leader Akhmad Kadyrov.

Voter turnout reached more than 79 percent by the time polls closed at 8 p.m., said the head of the Chechen election committee, Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov. Turnout had passed the 30 percent needed to validate the vote by noon, he said.

Preliminary results will be released Monday in a contest that the Kremlin-favored candidate, Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, is expected to easily win.

A rival candidate complained of widespread ballot stuffing, but his protests appeared to fall on deaf ears.

The explosion took place at about 9 a.m. when a young man arrived at a polling station on Grozny's Prospekt Pobedy carrying a suspicious package, Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Sultan Satuyev said.

When guards at the station asked him to show them the contents, he refused and ran away.

"We noticed a very tense young man walking with a package," a guard at the polling station said. "We asked him to stop, and he fled. We called out that we would shoot, and then the bomb exploded. The man died on the spot."

Law enforcement officials later identified the man as Rustam Chebiyev, a 25-year-old Grozny resident.

Separatists had threatened to disrupt the vote in an effort to derail Moscow's attempts to show that stability has returned to Chechnya after years of fighting. Still, a dark cloud hung over the election after last week's almost-simultaneous plane crashes that killed 90 people. Investigators are probing a Chechen angle in the two crashes.

Fearing violence, Chechen police and federal servicemen were a visible presence Sunday. Some 15,000 law enforcement officers and troops were dispatched to guard Chechnya's 429 polling stations, said Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Atsayev.

Despite the high reported turnout, downtown Grozny streets were virtually empty of people. Many residents left town fearing violence, and all cafes were closed except for those at the central market -- which itself was almost devoid of vendors.

"I decided to show up, but I regret it. There are practically no customers," said Sanet, a bread merchant. "The only good thing is that nothing has blown up." He said that his sister, who works at a different market, had been warned by strangers to stay home.

"I went to vote only so that my ballot wouldn't be cast for me. We all know that Alkhanov will win. The results are predetermined," said Adam Musayev, a former veterinarian who now works as a taxi driver. "On principle, I voted against all."

The high turnout reported Sunday is of little surprise. When Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed former mufti, was elected in an unchallenged vote last October, turnout was registered at more than 80 percent.

Alkhanov faced six challengers in Sunday's election, but none were expected to keep him from garnering more than 50 percent of the vote -- which he needs to prevent the vote from going into a second round. President Vladimir Putin has made Alkhanov his clear favorite, and state media have given him widespread coverage not afforded to his rivals.

One rival candidate, Movsar Khamidov, said Sunday that his campaign staff had registered numerous violations and will contest the vote results in court.

The voting results were scripted far in advance, he said. "If it is written that by 10:00 a certain number must have voted, then they provide those numbers, regardless of reality," he said.

Khamidov said a team of his observers found that not one voter had shown up at a polling station in the Mekensky Naursky district by 2:30 p.m. even though official turnout there was registered at 35 percent.

One observer, Dadash Aliyev, said that around 7 a.m., a woman in the Sernovodsky neighborhood saw an election committee official carry two bags crammed with ballots into a school building on Ulitsa Kadyrova where a polling station was located.

The woman relayed this information to Khamidov's campaign headquarters, but, Aliyev said, "unfortunately, we were unable to catch her red-handed because it was early in the morning and no one was around."

Sharip Tsuruyev, a campaign representative for Khamidov, said ballots were already in the ballot boxes at Grozny Polling Station No. 406 when it opened at 8 a.m. "We called the prosecutor. The polling station officials didn't want us to make a fuss and promised to split a certain percent of the vote, but we didn't agree," Tsuruyev said.

An estimated 1 million Chechen citizens live throughout Russia. It is unclear how many still live in Chechnya.

Chechen election committee secretary Ela Vakhitov announced that more than 500 refugees living in neighboring Ingushetia had voted by 3:30 p.m., Interfax reported.

In an effort to woo voters back and raise turnout figures, the pro-Moscow Chechen administration offered cash compensation for destroyed houses to refugees who returned home in time for the vote. Officials also relaxed the rules for obtaining cellphones.

Concerts were offered Sunday near polling stations in Grozny. Well-known singers performed on the steps of School No. 7, another polling station. About 15 people gathered to listen, mostly drivers passing by.