Mass anti-Putin rally under way in Moscow
September 16, 2012

Thousands of Russians dissatisfied with President Vladimir Putin have taken to the streets of Moscow in a mass protest at his rule.

Estimates of the crowd by early Saturday afternoon ranged from 11,000 to 100,000 participants. The demonstration, which police said was proceeding peacefully, was set to last until the evening.

More than 7000 uniformed and plain-clothes officers were deployed to the centre of the Russian capital, as police removed vehicles along main roads protesters were using to march into the city.

Opposition blogs reported a heavy police presence, with security troops in body armour standing at the ready. Buses loaded with more anti-riot troops parked on side streets near the square and police helicopters flew overhead.

A rally, which authorities had sanctioned beforehand, took place in Moscow's central Sakharov square, with speakers from most of Russia's opposition groups participating.

Smaller demonstrations against Putin and his political party's overwhelming control of the country were reported in St Petersburg and Kaliningrad, as well as in the central Siberian city of Yekaterinburg.

The "March of Millions" protest is calling for social and political reforms, fair elections and the right for government critics to make their case on state television, said Sergei Udaltsov, one of the opposition leaders, in comments to the Interfax news agency.

Other demands include early parliamentary and presidential elections and more government support for working families and low-income groups, he said.

"Our main slogan is 'End political repression'," Udaltsov said.

The demonstration, the first major anti-government protest in three months, comes one day after Russia's parliament expelled opposition politician Gennady Gudkov from its ranks and stripped him of immunity from criminal prosecution.

Gudkov was among the marchers, as well as politician and chess champion Garry Kasparov, and former prime minister Boris Nemtsov, Interfax reported.

Opposition leaders have said Gudkov's expulsion is part of a Putin campaign to remove government critics from power. Parliament members allied with Putin said Gudkov may have violated laws prohibiting elected officials from operating private businesses while in office.