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Protest against Putin's 'grip on power'

Thousands have taken to the streets of Moscow in protest against the rule of Vladimir Putin. The rally is seen as a test of the opposition's ability to challenge the Russian president.

The demonstrators waved nationalist flags, some carried banners calling for early elections or declaring Putin a "parasite," and others were there to demand the early release of the jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot.

The sanctioned rally took place in Sakharov Square in central Moscow, while smaller demonstrations were reported in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, and the central Siberian city of Yekaterinburg. Estimates of crowd numbers in Moscow have varied from 10,000 to over 100,000.

Sergei Udaltsov, one of Russia's opposition leaders, said the "March of Millions" protest is calling for fair elections, social and political reforms, and for critics of the government to have the ability to use state television to put their case forward.

Russia's anti-Putin opposition is split between widely varying political ideologies - nationalists, liberals and the extreme left. The protest organizers are hoping that the movement, now nine months old, is still able to continue with the same momentum four months after Putin began a six-year term as president.

It began in response to allegations of electoral fraud and Putin's 12-year so-called grip on power, but has been criticized by some as having no common message other than being opposed to Putin.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire tycoon who placed third in the March presidential elections, said the opposition had no coherent program and therefore he would not be taking part in the protest. Prokhorov had participated in previous demonstrations.

Saturday's protesters have been dismissed by the Kremlin as a minority that does not represent or have the support of Russia.

The anti-government protest is the first major demonstration in three months, and comes a day after Russia's parliament expelled Gennady Gudkov, an opposition politician, and took away his immunity from criminal prosecution.

It had been alleged Gudkov illegally continued business activities while holding a mandate in the assembly, but the opposition says his expulsion is part of Putin campaign to remove government critics from power.

jr/ccp (AFP, Reuters, dpa)