Protesters rally against Putin in southern Russian city

ASTRAKHAN Sat Apr 14, 2012 4:19pm EDT

1 of 2. Former mayoral candidate Oleg Shein (C) addresses supporters during a protest rally in the south Russian city of Astrakhan April 14, 2012. Shein, claiming his victory was stolen in favour of a rival from Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, has vowed not to eat until a new vote is held in this provincial capital in southern Russia.

Credit: Reuters/Vladimir Tyukaev

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ASTRAKHAN (Reuters) - More than 2,000 Russians took to the streets of the southern city of Astrakhan on Saturday to protest against President-elect Vladimir Putin's political system, complaining of electoral fraud in a recent mayoral vote there.

Oleg Shein, Astrakhan's defeated mayoral candidate, began a hunger strike last month along with some of his supporters, saying the election had been rigged in favor of his rival from the ruling United Russia party.

On Saturday, Shein, a member of the A Just Russia party, addressed a crowd, many of whom wore white ribbons, a symbol of a protest movement which began in Moscow last year after accusations of voting fraud in a parliamentary election. A Reuters reporter on the scene estimated that more than 2,000 men and women had turned up.

"Today Astrakhan has united the hearts of all those people who want to live freely, who don't want to be a slave and want to have a dignified life in the great country called Russia," said Shein, looking emaciated.

Events in Astrakhan have breathed fresh life into the largest protest movement in more than a decade with opposition leaders descending on the Caspian Sea city to test a strategy of trying to take on the Kremlin at a local level.

Shein said he would continue his hunger strike, already in its 29th day, until at least April 17, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Police detained three people for trying to use tear gas to break through a police cordon, it added.

A rival rally was held in another part of the city in support of victorious candidate Mikhail Stolyarov. Police said some 5,000 people had attended the rally, though that number could not be independently confirmed.

SOLIDARITY RALLY

Meanwhile, in central Moscow's Pushkin Square, hundreds of men and women put on a show of solidarity for Shein, who says victory was snatched from him on March 4, the same day as the presidential election, which the opposition says was also marred by fraud.

"There should be new elections carried out for the parliament as for the presidency. This is our fundamental demand and we will fight for it," said opposition group Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, who has started a hunger strike in solidarity with Shein.

Separately, nearly one hundred protesters gathered at Moscow's Ostankino television tower to demonstrate against the pro-Kremlin content of the NTV television station.

A vibrant liberal news outlet before a raid on its offices in 2000, it is now known for running smear campaigns against Kremlin foes.

Last month, it enraged protestors after broadcasting a documentary that accused them of attending rallies for promises of cash.

The next major anti-Kremlin protest is due to be held on May 6, when opposition leaders plan a march in Moscow which they hope will reinvigorate their movement, which has seen protester numbers fall away.

(Writing By Thomas Grove; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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