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Turnout assures Putin of new term

Vladimir Putin
Chechnya (Russia)

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Turnout in Russia's presidential election has exceeded the 50 percent hurdle needed to validate the vote, the country's chief electoral official said.

A failure of more than half of Russia's 109 million registered voters to go to the polls was seen as the only hurdle that President Vladimir Putin faced to his re-election for a second term.

Central Election Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov said overall turnout was 51.73 percent at 4 p.m Moscow time (1300 GMT) on Sunday, the Interfax news agency reported.

Believing Putin is the certain winner, some Russians had said they did not plan to vote. Recent polls showed Putin had more than 70 percent of voter support.

As voting continued across the country's 11 time zones, the only report of violence was of two bomb explosions at polling stations in rebel Chechnya. No one was injured.

Putin has made the fight against Chechen separatist guerrillas a priority of his first four years in office. In the process he earned repeated criticism from the West for human rights abuses in the impoverished Caucasus region.

He has also come under fire in the West for using Russia's state-dominated media to push his campaign, giving little room to rivals.

As Putin and his wife, Ludmila, cast their ballots Sunday, the Russian leader expressed his confidence and thanked his six opponents.

"From my days as an athlete, I have learned to treat my competitors and opponents with great respect," Putin said. "I think that they are all worthy people. We'll know the results tomorrow morning."

Three days ahead of the election, Putin urged Russians to go to the polls during a televised address.

Voting is a monumental task in the vast country. Voters in Kaliningrad began casting their ballots 10 hours ahead of Muscovites.

The first polling stations close at 1800 GMT on Sunday, with the last shutting its doors an hour later.

Exit polls are expected to give a reliable indication of the result within minutes of the last ballot being cast.

CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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