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World News

Russian protesters block main road in Putin hometown

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - At least 2,000 Russian protesters broke through police lines and blocked St Petersburg’s main thoroughfare on Saturday, in an unusually bold show of opposition to the Kremlin.

Police scuffle with liberal opposition supporters while blocking them during a demonstration in Russia's second largest city of St.Petersburg March 3, 2007. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk

The demonstrators, shouting “Freedom!” and brandishing orange flares, dispersed after about one hour but earlier police in riot gear and wielding truncheons tussled with protesters. Police said they had detained about 100 people.

Authorities in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city and hometown of President Vladimir Putin, forbade the protest saying it would cause too much disruption.

But protesters defied that ban, pushing through several police cordons to march about 2 km (1.2 miles) down the city’s Nevsky Prospect before stopping in front of a line of hundreds of riot police backed by armored jeeps.

Protest leaders said they were staging a “march of the discontented” to resist what they called the Kremlin’s tightening grip on power and to demand a fair presidential election next year.

The constitution requires Putin to step down when his second term ends in 2008. Most observers expect him to endorse a Kremlin insider to succeed him at the election.

The anti-Kremlin opposition is in a minority. Opinion polls show a big majority of Russian voters approve of Putin’s rule.

“It (the protest) was a major success for the opposition,” said Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is now an outspoken critic of Putin.

“It is the beginning of the Russian people recognizing that they can change things,” Kasparov told Reuters. “They used force against a very peaceful demonstration.”

OPPOSITION STRONGHOLD

A spokesman for the city police said between two and three thousand protesters took part and that “several dozen” were detained. Organizers said about 5,000 people joined the protest and he spoke of hundreds of detentions.

The demonstration was unusual because most anti-Kremlin protests in Russia attract only a few hundred people and they are easily contained by police.

Among those detained were local legislators and Eduard Limonov, a cult novelist and leader of the “Other Russia” opposition coalition which organized the protest.

“I came here because I am against this system, which does not like elections, which does not allow demonstrations. I am against the abuse of power by bureaucrats,” said protester Alesya Galkina.

Nationwide support for the opposition is weak but St Petersburg is one of its biggest strongholds.

Tensions have been running high there since the opposition Yabloko party was barred from running in a regional vote this month. Critics said the party’s exclusion was part of a Kremlin effort to silence dissent before the presidential election.

Additional reporting by Christian Lowe

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