REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- A group of Russian human rights activists took the rare step Friday of criticizing a U.S. official, lashing out at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for calling Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin the "clear winner" in this week's presidential election.
The rebuke came amid continued charges from election monitors of irregularities during Sunday's balloting.
Clinton said this week that the United States was ready to cooperate with the new Russian president despite "a number of concerns about this latest electoral process that should be investigated and addressed" and other worries "about the arrests of peaceful protesters, which occurred again on Monday."
"The election had a clear winner, and we are ready to work with President-elect Putin as he is sworn in and assumes the responsibilities of the presidency," Clinton said. "We are going to be looking for ways to enhance cooperation on a range of difficult issues."
The group of rights activists led by Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, called Clinton's remarks "an insult."
"These words were pronounced on the days when more and more facts are being exposed of mass falsifications of the vote results," the statement published on the Memorial Society website read. "From our point of view, Hillary Clinton's words can't be regarded otherwise but an insult to the people struggling for honest elections in Russia."
"It is time to understand that there are things more important than diplomatic protocol, [such as] the rights of voters for once," the statement said.
The Russian League of Voters, a nongovernmental election monitoring group, issued a statement early this week calling the election results illegitimate.
"In the backdrop of wide-scale irregularities, the league deems it impossible to accept the results of the 2012 presidential vote," the statement said.
Putin rejected such allegations, including the charge that voters were brought to polling stations by the busloads to vote for him. "Forty-five million people can't be brought by bus," he said. "There are things impossible to argue."
Russian rights groups said Clinton's statement made it easier for the Kremlin to brush off charges of fraud.
"Clinton's statement, coming at such a crucial moment in Russian history, is a serious political mistake as it helps the Kremlin to disregard the opinion of numerous Russian and international observers as marginal," Valery Borshchev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group who also signed the Friday statement, said in an interview. "We are not expecting the State Department to assist us in our struggle for the fair vote in Russia, but we don't want them to be in our way either."
"Various monitoring groups are still assessing the real results, which fluctuate between 48% and 52% in favor of Putin, which means that he may have won the election," Borshchev said. "But of all things, he was not a clear winner as Hillary Clinton said."
Opposition leaders say new protests will be held in Moscow and elsewhere on Saturday. Hundreds of protesters were detained and later released in Moscow and St. Petersburg after rallies on Monday.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: A Russian activist holds up a caricature of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a caption that reads "The Outlaw!" during an opposition rally in Moscow's Pushkinskaya Square on Monday. Credit: John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images