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Russians brave cold in Putin demonstrations

Russians have gathered in Moscow at rival demonstrations supporting and opposing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, despite sub-zero temperatures. The anti-Putin rally is seen as a big test for the opposition movement.

Protesters gather with balloons and placards at an anti-Putin demonstration

Opposition leaders said 120,000 people showed up

Tens of thousands of Russians opposing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rallied in Moscow on Saturday, as their pro-Kremlin rivals gathered just a short distance away.

Saturday's march for fair elections is the third mass anti-Putin rally in less than two months. It is being viewed as a vital test of the protest movement's momentum, a month ahead of elections for the presidency.

Police said 36,000 people attended the anti-Putin rally, but opposition leaders said their numbers exceeded 120,000. Reporters on the scene said the rally appeared to be at least as big as the last big opposition protest in December, when some 120,000 peope took part.

Up to 138,000 took part in the pro-Putin rally just a few miles (kilometers) away, police said. The Kremlin has a reputation of boosting their numbers in protests by bussing in sympathizers from surrounding areas, and teachers have said trade unions pressured them to turn out in support of Putin.

"I have something I believe in," said Sergei Bedchuk, a 54-year-old teacher who attended the opposition protest. "I could not go there (to support Putin)."

Cold snap

Russians on both sides appeared to be undeterred by a vicious cold snap that has spread across Europe, as the temperature in the capital plunged to minus 17 degrees Celsius (1.5 Fahrenheit).

A portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with the word sacked

Putin is widely expected to win elections in March

Protesters want a repeat of December's parliamentary elections, a probe into accusations of vote rigging, electoral reforms and the release of alleged political prisoners including the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Opposition leader Ilya Yashin called the upcoming presidential election on March 4 "false and illegitimate." Grigory Yavlinsky, who was barred from running in the race for his opposition Yabloko party, said the anti-Putin movement would only grow.

"We are defending the future of our country," he said. "Our foes will soon see that it's only the beginning."

Putin, who is widely expected to win the election, has mocked the demonstrators, claiming that they lack leadership.

acb/rc/slk (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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