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Police, protesters clash on eve of Putin return

A booming 3-gun salute will form part of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony tomorrow (© 2009 AFP)

Baton-wielding riot police roughly broke up a Moscow protest rally Sunday on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s return for a third Kremlin term, arresting more than 400 people including top opposition leaders.

The clashes just over the river from the Kremlin were the most violent since the first rallies against the Russian strongman began in December and set an ominous tone ahead of his glitzy presidential inauguration ceremony Monday.

Those arrested included three key leaders of the nascent protest movement against Putin — the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, liberal leader Boris Nemtsov and ultra-left wing activist Sergei Udaltsov.

Police said they detained more than 400 people after demonstrators threw stones and water bottles at officers and blamed the violence on opposition leaders who attempted to stage a sit-in protest in the middle of the crowd.

The event had been billed as a “March of Millions” along one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares that was due to conclude at a square used for the first of several mass protests that erupted against Putin’s dominant rule this winter.

The crowds stretched as far as the eye could see and organisers put the turnout figure in the tens of thousands. Police put the figure at only 8,000.

The first problems began when thousands of helmeted police took control of the main bridge leading to the Kremlin to prevent the protest from spilling over and steered people into a bottleneck that soon developed into a crush.

Udaltsov and about 200 others then declared a sit-down strike in front of the bridge and a tense standoff lasting more than an hour eventually led to a concerted push by protesters against police ranks.

The police responded by unleashing batons against protesters — many screaming out in pain — and slamming people to the ground before dragging them by their arms and legs to waiting police vans.

“We will not leave until they free our comrades and they do not cancel the inauguration,” Udaltsov shouted through a megaphone. “We will not leave,” he said as people chanted back “We Are the Power.”

Several policemen then dramatically stormed on stage and led Udaltsov away to jeers from the crowd.

Navalny was also seen being roughly arrested by several police while Nemtsov was detained after climbing onto a metal camera stand and attempting to give an impromptu speech to the crowds.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told independent Dozhd TV “we should not over-dramatise the situation” and condemned “provocations” that turned the rally violent.

The interior ministry said 20 of its police officers had been injured and called the work of the overall force “professional and in accordance with the law and the situation that developed.”

The protest movement had lost much of its momentum since Putin’s thumping March 4 presidential election win against only token opposition and Sunday’s protests was aimed at rejuvenating the movement.

The latest rallies had drawn a fraction of the mass crowds who joined the winter protests amid questions in the fractured movement — whose members range between veteran liberals to teenage Stalinists — about their true cause.

In a sign of the growing disunity, the leader of the opposition liberal Yabloko party lashed out at Udaltsov for splitting away from the mass protest and launching his own action.

“This was not a solid move and was clearly stupid. If he (Udaltsov) continues acting like this then less and less people are going to come to the protests,” Sergei Mitrokhin told the Interfax news agency.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Putin’s supporters gathered for a festive “celebration” filled with high-production pop concerts at Victory Park — a site dedicated to Russia’s 1812 defeat of Napoleon.

The police said 30,000 had come out for the pro-Putin event — more than three times the figure they gave the opposition protest.

Signature : Maria Antonova and Antoine Lambroschini MOSCOW (AFP)

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