MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Russia's presidential election before tens of thousands of cheering supporters yesterday, even as the opposition and independent observers insisted the vote had been marred by widespread fraud.

At a rally outside the Kremlin, Putin thanked his supporters for helping foil plots aimed at destroying Russia, in his words, sounding a nationalistic theme that has resonated with his core supporters amid a wave of protests. "I have promised that we would win and we have won!" he shouted to the crowd, his eyes brimming with tears.

Putin tallied 58-59 percent of the vote, according to exit polls cited by state television. If thousands of claims of violations made by independent observers and Putin's foes are confirmed, they would undermine the legitimacy of his victory and fuel further protests by Russians exasperated with corruption and rising social inequality. -- AP

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