Moscow - Vladi-mir Putin has been elected Russian president for the third time, exit polls suggest, after spending the last four years as the country’s PM, BBC reported on Sunday.

The exit polls gave Mr Putin about 60 per cent of the vote, meaning that he should avoid a run-off with his nearest rival, Communist Gennady Zyuganov.

Officials say turnout was higher than for the last election in 2008. But opposition groups have reported widespread fraud, with many people voting more than once. They have called for mass protests in central Moscow on Monday.

Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of Mr Putin gathered with Russian flags and banners outside the Kremlin for a concert to celebrate his victory.

There is tight security in the city, with 6,000 extra police brought in from outside.

The electoral commission published preliminary results, with 14 per cent of districts counted, showing Mr Putin gaining nearly 62 per cent, and Mr Zyuganov just under 18 per cent. The other three candidates were in single digits.

In a news conference after the polls closed, Mr Zyuganov described the elections as “unfair and unworthy”. But he said that with increasing public anger, Mr Putin “would not be able to rule like he used to”.

“These elections cannot be considered legitimate in any way,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the leaders of the street protest movement, which was not represented in the election. Meanwhile Mr Putin’s campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin described the poll as “the cleanest in Russian history”. The turnout was 58.3 per cent by 18:00 Moscow time (14:00 GMT), considerably higher than in 2008 elections. Electoral officials forecast a final turnout of 62.3 per cent.

The election was held against a backdrop of popular discontent, sparked by allegations of widespread fraud during December’s parliamentary elections in favour of Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

Observer organisations said there had been thousands of violations including so-called carousel voting, with busloads of voters being driven around to different polling stations.

The alleged fraud came despite the presence of thousands of independent observers and web cameras at polling stations.

Opposition blogger and anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny told the BBC: “Grandiose scale of falsifications, especially in Moscow... mass use of carousel voting.”

In a late night appearance before over 100,000 supporters just outside the Kremlin, Putin declared that he had won a clean fight and said Russian voters had sabotaged attempts to break up the country.

“We have won in an open and honest battle,” Putin said with tears in his eyes and his voice hoarse with emotion, standing on a stage alongside outgoing outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev on Manezh Square.

“I promised you we would win, we won. Glory to Russia!” Putin said, adding that voters had defeated provocations that aimed “to break up the Russian state and to usurp power.” The supporters filled the square, spilling over into the streets, waving Russian flags and chanting “Putin, Putin!”.

But the Russian strongman also faces an emboldened protest movement against his rule which was not represented by any single candidate in the elections and had succeeded in holding three massive rallies over the last three months.

Putin will now in May formally reclaim the Kremlin post he occupied for two terms from 2000-2008 after his four-year stint as prime minister under the presidency of his protege Medvedev.

But under a change to the constitution, the next presidential mandate will last six years and analysts have warned that Putin risks facing serious unrest in that period if he does not respond to Russia’s changing society.

According to results with 30 per cent of polling stations reporting, Putin was winning 63.42 per cent of the vote with Zyuganov trailing on 17.25 per cent. The central election commission said turnout was around 64 per cent.

Tycoon turned politician Mikhail Prokhorov was third with 7.29 per cent. Populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky had 7.19 per cent while the former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov languished in last on 3.72 per cent.