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NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia (Reuters) - Hackers have tried to crash a vast network of web cameras which Vladimir Putin has ordered to allay fears of vote-rigging in the March presidential election, a deputy minister said on Friday.
Putin, facing the biggest protests of his 12-year rule after a disputed December parliamentary election the opposition said was rigged, ordered 182,000 web cameras to be installed at the 91,000 polling stations.
As early voting began in the most desolate corners of Russia for sailors and reindeer herders, Putin inspected a polling station in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk where the first two cameras went live on the www.webvybory2012.ru web site.
The cameras will stream footage of ballot boxes and vote-counting during the election to the site, which Putin's supporters hope will take the sting out of allegations of ballot-stuffing by authorities.
But Deputy Communications Minister Ilya Massukh told Reuters that the system, operated by state-controlled Rostelecom, had already fallen victim to regular distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS) originating in Russia.
"We are launching this site ahead of time in order to understand the nature of the threats," Massukh said. During a DDOS attack a network is bombarded by so many requests that it eventually crashes.
Putin said theft and vandalism was also a problem.
"The most important thing is that the gear does not get swiped. There have been such incidents already," said Putin, who in recent weeks has faced mass protests at which Russians have called on him to step down.
The official demand of the protest leaders, a fragmented group of politicians, activists, journalists and bloggers, is for a re-run of the parliamentary election they say was fraudulent. Russia denies the vote was rigged.
Official results show Putin's ruling party won 49.3 percent of the vote. Opposition activists have shown dozens of videos shot by volunteers as evidence of ballot-stuffing.
The clips showed neat stacks of ballots filled in for Putin's party inside boxes and election commission officials filling in the ballots themselves.
To date 54,000 polling stations have been equipped with cameras. Massukh said that at 4,000 polling stations in remote places cameras will not be shown live.
The recording equipment is placed in a safebox and the key is held by election commission officials.
"This will be the most transparent election in the world," he said. "Russia can give a lesson in democracy to the world."
The government plans to spend 13 billion rubles ($434 million) on the system. Critics say cameras are unlikely to prevent election officials re-writing results lists or mass directives to staff of state organizations to vote for Putin.
Massukh said election officials will have to count the ballots in front of the cameras and then read out and show the results to the cameras.
Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; editing by Andrew Roche