Anti-Putin human chain protest hits Moscow

Thousands of Russians linked hands around Moscow on Sunday in a protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's expected return to the Kremlin for a third term in elections next weekend.

A din of endless honking descended on Moscow's 16-kilometre (10-mile) Garden Ring Road as drivers expressed support for the human chain of smiling and waving people who gathered in freezing snowy weather.

"We came here because we disagree with what happened in the legislative elections," said Mikhail, 22, in reference to fraud-tainted December 4 polls that sparked the first mass protests of Putin's 12-year domination of Russia.

Police said at least 11,000 people braved the swirling snow at the event but organisers said 30,000 had turned out to deliver a message to Putin one week ahead of the presidential polls on March 4.

"People came here because they hope that this time their votes will be counted," said another 48-year-old member of the human chain who identified himself as Mikhail.

Pedestrians of all ages -- their coats adorned with the white ribbons that are the symbol of the anti-Putin movement -- joined hands and raised their linked arms in celebration.

They formed a circular chain aimed at enclosing all of inner Moscow in scenes not witnessed since the days of the Soviet collapse. One unbroken line of people stretched over the landmark Krymsky Bridge spanning the Moscow River.

The protest action echoes a historic human chain that the three tiny Baltic states organised in 1989 to demand their independence from the Soviet Union.

More than a million people were estimated to have taken part in a protest that was followed in the next two years by their declarations of independence and the Soviet system's collapse.

Footage of Sunday's event made only a brief appearance on state-controlled television newscasts which focused mainly on a remote earthquake that injured no one in Siberia and a small pro-Putin action in Moscow.

An AFP reporter saw some 3,000 people also march through Putin's native city of Saint Petersburg chanting "Russia Without Putin" as hundreds of crack OMON officers watched tensely on the side of the road.

Smaller anti-Putin demonstrations were reported in the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Kemerovo and parts of the Ural Mountains region.

"This might be the last peaceful protest because no one knows what might happen on March 5," popular writer and protest co-leader Boris Akunin said at the Moscow event, referring to a meeting planned a day after the elections.

"That meeting is unsanctioned and it is already obvious that a lot of people are going to come out," he told the private Rain television network.

"The police might behave differently from the way they are acting now, and this seriously concerns me."

Russia has witnessed more than a month of weekly rival rallies between Putin's foes and his state-backed supporters in advance of elections that the 59-year-old former KGB spy is almost certain to win.

The latest polls and forecasts show Putin winning in the first round with around 10 percentage points fewer than the 71 percent he secured on his re-election to a second term in 2004.

But some leading members of the opposition have already vowed to bring out their supporters onto the streets in what could be a tense start to a new six-year term by Putin in which his rule will be challenged for the first time.

The Russian strongman's supporters fought back by staging their own event on a central Moscow square called "Putin Loves Everyone".

A Kremlin youth group handed out ribbons with the Russian tricolour flag -- a clear reference to the white ribbons worn by the opposition -- throughout the afternoon.

Posters and flags reading "For Putin. It Is as Simple as That" with images of the Russian premier also popped up around the city and in spots where Muscovites were expected to link hands for the opposition protest.

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