Vote counting is underway in Kyrgyzstan following Thursday's presidential election where the top opposition candidate abruptly withdrew and claimed massive fraud.

Almazbek Atambayev, a former prime minister, demanded a new vote and said he would lead a protest march to the election commission late Thursday.  Kyrgyz authorities say they will not allow the march to take place.

Incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is widely expected to win another term in office.

Opposition candidate Atambayev was considered the president's most serious challenger. Another presidential candidate, Zhenishbek Nazaraliyev, also quit the race while voting was underway.

Election officials declared the election valid, with voter turnout surpassing the required 50 percent.  Hundreds of monitors observed the polling.  Preliminary results are expected to be announced Friday.

President Bakiyev came to power in 2005 after violent street protests forced his predecessor, Askar Akayev, to resign.

The United States and Russia have key strategic interests in Kyrgyzstan.  The country hosts U.S. troops at an air base used to supply U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.  And Russia has recently given Kyrgyzstan about $2 billion in aid in what analysts say is an attempt to wield influence in the former Soviet republic.
In February, the United States was caught off guard when President Bakiyev announced he would evict U.S. troops from Manas air base.  However, earlier this month, the Kyrgyz government changed course and approved a deal allowing the United States to continue using the air base in exchange for tripling the yearly rent.

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