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Agence France Presse

Russian Police Beat Opposition Protestors

Agence France Presse staff

MOSCOW - Russian police clubbed and detained opposition protestors Sunday after a peaceful demonstration against President Vladimir Putin, the second in two days resulting in mass arrests.About 100 people were detained, according to preliminary figures from city police, following the protest by The Other Russia coalition, which is calling for free elections when Putin steps down next year. 0415 01

Some 2,000 demonstrators chanting "revolution!" and "freedom!" confronted at least 1,500 members of the security forces, including hundreds of black-helmeted paramilitary police, who encircled them.

When the rally dispersed, police beat and detained anyone attempting to escape their cordon. Among those detained was Eduard Limonov, one of the leaders of The Other Russia, his spokesman told AFP.

A middle-aged woman was left with a bloody nose. Police rushed to kick a man as he lay on the ground after falling from a fence he had tried to climb to escape the cordon.

"Shame!" demonstrators chanted as police forced about 10 protestors aboard a bus.

The clashes in Saint Petersburg followed a violent crackdown on a similar rally by The Other Russia in Moscow on Saturday. At least 200 people were arrested there, including another of the coalition's leaders, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov who was released hours later.

Tensions are rising in Russia ahead of the March 2008 presidential election to replace Putin, who is constitutionally required to step down at the end of his second term.

Putin, who has overseen rapid economic growth in Russia, is popular and whoever he endorses is expected to take over the Kremlin.

The disparate groups in The Other Russia coalition, ranging from pro-Western liberals like Kasparov to radical leftists, say they have the authorities rattled.

"The last two days showed that the Putin regime doesn't pay attention any more to legalities and relies on brute force," Kasparov told CNN television.

"My prediction is that by the end of this year Russia will sink into political turmoil."

"The authorities are scared of the people," said Viktor Petrovich, 58, at the Saint Petersburg rally. "They feel unsafe and that's why they deploy so many police."

Limonov, leader of anti-Putin youth group the National Bolsheviks, told protestors that the "authorities have declared war on the people."

"We demand free elections to parliament, we demand free elections to the presidency -- without any successors. Down with autocracy!" he said before he was taken away by police.

Outspoken political debate is rare in Russia and criticism of Putin is almost never heard.

MOSCOW - The state controls all television and nearly all radio, while Kremlin supporters constitute a large majority in parliament.

The Other Russia has never been able to bring more than 5,000 people onto the streets, but the weekend's drama in Moscow and Saint Petersburg appeared to underline the authorities' impatience with opposition.

In Moscow, 9,000 riot police and soldiers were deployed Saturday to prevent less than 2,000 activists marching peacefully to a central square in the capital.

In Saint Petersburg, arrests began hours before the protest even started, including two organisers for The Other Russia.

Private transport was banned from adjacent streets, a helicopter circled overhead and mobile phone connections were temporarily unavailable.

Copyright © 2007 AFP.

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