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Police hunt missing Russian presidential hopeful
Updated: 2004-02-09 09:59

Russian police launched a hunt on Sunday for a politician set to challenge President Vladimir Putin in forthcoming elections, after his wife said he had disappeared Thursday and had not been seen since.

Election officials Saturday cleared Ivan Rybkin, a fierce critic of Putin, to run in a March 14 poll that the incumbent is widely expected to win with ease.

File picture of October 2003 shows Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin in Moscow. Russian police launched a hunt on Sunday, February 8, 2004, for Ivan Rybkin, a political rival of President Vladimir Putin set to challenge him in forthcoming elections after his wife reported him missing since Thursday night.  [Reuters]
But Sunday Rybkin's wife reported him missing and police called in security services to search for him.

"His wife has made a report," a police spokesman said. "He left home at around 7 p.m. Thursday and since then he has not been seen."

Rybkin, a former speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house, has entered the presidential race as an independent and is backed by exiled business magnate Boris Berezovsky.

Berezovsky accuses Putin of crushing independent media and duping public opinion in his drive against Chechen separatism.

But few see any possibility of a credible election challenge to Putin, who has a rating of 70 percent or more in opinion polls.

Russia was to learn later Sunday the complete list of candidates taking part in the poll, when the Central Election Commission delivered its verdict on the final two applications.

Officials were expected to approve as candidates populist left-wing economist Sergei Glazyev and Irina Khakamada, the only runner from the pro-business forces routed in December's parliamentary election.

Their registration would take the total of candidates challenging Putin to six, including Rybkin. The others are candidates from the Communist Party and the extreme nationalist Liberal Democrat Party and the speaker of the upper house of parliament.

But Rybkin could fall by the wayside even before the polls.

The electoral commission has ordered an investigation into the way he collected the two million signatures required to support his campaign.

Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said too many of the signatures were subject to irregularities.

Should Rybkin be found to have falsified a large quantity of signatures he could face disqualification, but his campaign team has denied large-scale errors and vowed legal action if he is kept from the polls.

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