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Saakashvili Claims Victory in Local Georgian Elections

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says his pro-Western party has won an overwhelming victory in Thursday's local elections.

Mr. Saakashvili said late Thursday exit polls show his United National Movement won at least 70 percent support across the country. He added the elections were "clean."

Voters cast ballots for more than 1,700 members of municipal and regional councils. Turnout is reported to be at least 40 percent.

Election officials are expected to announce preliminary results later Friday.

Thursday's election was seen as a referendum on Mr. Saakashvili's administration, and a barometer of his performance in a standoff with Russia centering on charges of spying by Russian servicemen in Georgia.

President Saakashvili's pro-Western stance for Georgia has strained relations between the former Soviet republic and Moscow.

Since coming to power in the 2003 pro-democracy "Rose Revolution," Mr. Saakashvili has sought to forge closer ties with the European Union and United States.

Additionally, Georgia has long accused Russia of interfering in its internal affairs by backing separatists in two breakaway areas of the country - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.