Troops fired warning shots into the air Wednesday as thousands rallied to support a presidential candidate whose apparent victory over a Kremlin-backed rival was annulled in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.
A handful of soldiers who guarded the main government building in the capital of Tskhinvali fired the shots as several thousand supporters of Alla Dzhioyeva approached. Marching in the heavy snow, they chanted her name and shouted "Justice!"
South Ossetians broke away from Georgia in a war in the early 1990s. Spiraling tensions between pro-Russian separatists and the Western-learning Georgian government triggered a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Since then, Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent nation, but only a few other nations around the world followed suit.
A former school principal and anti-corruption crusader, Dzhioyeva declared herself president of South Ossetia early Wednesday after she led with about 57 percent of Sunday's run-off vote with ballots from 74 of the 85 precincts counted.
Her rival Anatoly Bibilov, who had been endorsed by Russia's dominant pro-Kremlin party, was trailing with 40 percent. Bibilov was the choice of the outgoing president, Eduard Kokoity, whom critics have accused of embezzling lavish Russian aid.
Dzhioyeva's announcement followed Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the results of the election due to alleged violations and barred her from a new election set for March.
On Wednesday, she denounced the ruling and said she is forming a new government.
"They wanted to steal our victory," Dzhioyeva told the rally after the shooting. "We will not let them."
She called on Kokoity to step down, promising safety to him and his family, and demanded that the Supreme Court overturn its annulment of the elections.
"It has to be done today," said the 62-year-old educator told the crowd that gathered on Tskninvali's main square.
Former defense minister Anatoly Barankevich told the crowd that he obtained the final election results, which confirmed Dzhioyeva's victory.
"She has won the election and became the president," he said, urging protesters to "act legally, without any provocations."
Both candidates won about 25 percent of the vote in the first round of the election two weeks ago and supported close ties with Moscow.
But Dzhioyeva also pledged to make the distribution of Russian aid transparent and rebuild houses and infrastructure destroyed by years of neglect and military conflicts between separatists and the central Georgian government.
Also Wednesday, the sizable South Ossetian community in Moscow called on the separatist government to recognize Dzhioyeva as president.
"We consider the actions of the ruling government a coup attempt," the community's head Valery Kabolov told the Ekho Moskvy radio.
Associated Press reporter Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report from Moscow