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Putin eases ban on Sochi demos

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed an order repealing the blanket ban on demonstrations in and around the Winter Olympics in Sochi. But all rallies must still be approved by security officials.

An order published on the Kremlin's website on Saturday said that meetings, gatherings, demonstrations, marches and picketing not connected with the games may be held in places or along routes approved by the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the country's police.

Putin last year ordered a ban on any demonstrations in Sochi not connected with the Games, due to be held from February 7 - 23. The ban would have come into effect next week, from January 7, continued through the Paralympics, and ended on March 21.

The new decree allows demonstrations at locations or along routes approved by officials in the Black Sea resort city, along with the regional police and security forces.

It also allows officials to set limits on how many people can take part in protests during the Games.

Although the new order lifts the blanket ban, Russian authorities are considered very miserly about granting permission to opposition groups.

Security fears about the Sochi Games were heightened last week when two suicide bomb attacks killed at least 34 people in the southern city of Volgograd.

There have also been signs that Putin is trying to disarm Russia's critics ahead of the Olympics. The Russian president last month freef several of the country's best known prisoners - former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of the punk group Pussy Riot.

bk/tj (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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