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Russians Vote in General Election; Big Win for Putin Expected


Russia Pol: Voters across Russia are choosing a new parliament in an election generally seen as an index of support for President Vladimir Putin.
Polls opened in Moscow and other western cities today (Sunday), hours after voting began in frigid weather in Russia's far east. Journalists who interviewed voters in Vladivostok and various other cities found heavy support for Mr. Putin's United Russia Party.
More than 100 million people are eligible to vote for legislators in the 450-seat State Duma - the lower house of parliament.
The vote ends this (Sunday) evening (at 1800 UTC) when polls close in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, the farthest west of Russia's 11 time zones.
In an interview broadcast on German radio today, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the elections, noting the limited number of international observers.
A Russian state-run news agency (Interfax) quotes the elections commission chairman saying 299 foreign observers have been accredited so far, and the number will increase during the day.
Opposition leaders accuse the Kremlin of stifling debate during the campaign leading up to the elections through pressure tactics and media controls.

Venezuela Referendum: Venezuelans are casting a 'yes' or 'no' vote today (Sunday) on proposed changes to the country's constitution that would greatly increase President Hugo Chavez's power.
Recent public opinion polls indicate the vote is too close to predict, with both sides rallying hard in recent days.
On Thursday, thousands of people marched in Caracas to protest against the proposed changes. The following day, thousands more came out for a rally to support President Chavez.
Mr. Chavez on Saturday warned Washington against interfering with the referendum, saying he will cut off oil sales to the United States if it does.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has denied any attempts of trying to interfere in the vote.
The proposed constitutional changes would eliminate presidential term limits and grant the government sweeping powers in the event of a national emergency.
Mr. Chavez said if voters pass the bill, he is prepared to stay in power until 2050.

Afghanistan: An Afghan provincial official says that about 40 Taliban fighters have been killed in several days of clashes with security forces in the country's south.
General Sayed Agha Saqib, the police chief of Kandahar province, said today (Sunday) that 35 Taliban were killed and 10 captured in a three-day operation that ended Saturday in the mountainous Shah Wall Kot district.
Saqib said Afghan and foreign troops clashed with another group of militants in Kandahar's Zhari district Saturday, killing five fighters and detaining four others.
The police chief said there were no casualties among the Afghan or foreign troops.
Saqib's casualty figures could not be independently verified.
This year has been the most violent since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Iraq: One of Iraq's most prominent Sunni politicians says Iraqi security forces are keeping him under virtual house arrest for a third consecutive day.
Adnan al-Dulaimi said today (Sunday) that the Iraqi troops guarding his home in Baghdad are preventing him from going to parliament and from receiving visitors.
Iraqi security forces deployed around Dulaimi's residence Friday, a day after finding two car bombs parked near his office complex. Police detained Dulaimi's son and more than 20 of his bodyguards on suspicion of links to the car bombs.
Members of Iraq's main Sunni faction walked out of parliament Saturday to protest the treatment of Dulaimi, a leader of the Accordance Front. Iraqi government officials deny he is under house arrest.
In other developments, Iraqi police say attacks in Baghdad today (Sunday) killed four Iraqis and wounded several others.

Iran – Russia – Nuclear: Iran's Foreign Ministry says chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili will travel to Moscow Monday to discuss Tehran's disputed nuclear plans with Russian officials.
The trip comes two days after Russia and five other world powers (the United States, Britain, France, Germany and China) met in Paris for talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program.
A French diplomat said the six powers agreed at Saturday's meeting to begin work on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose a third set of sanctions against Iran. The Council has demanded that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, but Tehran has refused.
Iran's Jalili met E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana in London Friday to work on resolving the dispute, but the talks failed to produce a breakthrough.
Solana is due to report to the U.N. Security Council soon on his mediation efforts, and his report could determine whether it approves further Iran sanctions.

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