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President sacks Moscow's mayor

Russia's president has sacked Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, ending his 18-year reign.

President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree relieving the 74-year-old mayor of his duties due to a "loss of confidence" in him.

With the long-awaited move, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev sent a powerful signal that no regional leader is indispensable.

Speculation over the future of the mayor had grown in recent days, forcing him to declare yesterday that he would not quit - an option that the Kremlin had offered to him.

"It's hard to imagine a situation in which (Luzhkov) and the president of Russia ... continue to work together when the president has lost confidence in the regional leader," Mr Medvedev said.

For years Mr Luzhkov has remained despite rumours that his days are numbered, with many attributing his sticking power to his ability to deliver the Moscow vote for Mr Putin's United Russia party, which he helped create. Firing him now gives the Kremlin time to appoint a successor who can also guarantee loyalty before the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential vote.

Under Mr Luzhkov's rule, Moscow underwent an astonishing makeover from a shabby and demoralised city into a swaggering and stylish metropolis. As the prices for Russia's oil and gas soared and foreign investment poured into the vastly underdeveloped country, Russia's capital sprouted gigantic construction projects - malls, offices and soaring apartment towers.

Much of that work was done by the construction company headed by Mr Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, who is believed to be Russia's only woman dollar billionaire. Suspicions swirled consistently that corruption by Mr Luzhkov fed his wife's wealth.

Mr Luzhkov's star began falling sharply in July when an ill-conceived repair project on the main road to Moscow's international airport created delays that left drivers taking up to six hours to get there from the city. Anger against the mayor then soared when he stayed on holiday in Austria in August even as Moscow suffered through weeks of heavy, suffocating smog from nearby forest and peat-bog fires.

But the final blow apparently was a row not even on Luzhkov's patch. Controversy had simmered for several years about plans to build a road through a forest just outside Moscow that environmentalists wanted to protect. Mr Medvedev in August ordered the project suspended, a decision that Mr Luzhkov criticised in a newspaper article.

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