Russian opposition rallies to back hunger-striker

Thousands of opposition supporters on Saturday marched through a Russian city in support of a hunger-striking local politician who says he was robbed of an election victory by vote rigging.

Up to 4,000 people took part in the rally in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan to back the month-long hunger strike of Oleg Shein, who lost allegedly fraudulent elections for the city mayor to the candidate of the ruling United Russia party, an AFP correspondent reported.

With tensions growing in the city as the opposition seeks to turn the issue into a national rallying cause, supporters of the Astrakhan mayor Mikhail Stolyarov also staged a thousands-strong counter rally earlier in the day.

The opposition had planned to hold their rally in the same venue as the pro-Stolyarov meeting, a square in the city centre around a statue of the Stalin-era politician Sergei Kirov.

Police closed off the square but did not impede a march through the city which gradually grew in numbers led by Shein and his colleagues from the opposition A Just Russia party.

"We are not slaves, we are for democracy and we will win. One for all and all for one!" an emaciated-looking Shein, who has been on a hunger strike since March 16, told the protestors through a loudspeaker.

The marchers paused several times to hear speeches but continued moving through the city and then headed towards the city hall.

The Astrakhan controversy has given some new momentum to the opposition after Vladimir Putin's crushing victory in March 4 presidential elections took some of the steam out of the nascent protest movement against his rule.

Dozens of opposition activists travelled to Astrakhan from Moscow for the weekend and their ranks included well-known Moscow figures such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the television host Ksenia Sobchak.

"We will be victorious! We are the power!" Navalny told the rally, using slogans he made famous during the mass Moscow rallies against Putin.

The rally appeared to be one of the biggest actions yet staged by the opposition in Russia's provinces after several demonstrations against Putin in Moscow in late 2011 and earlier this year mustered 100,000 people.

Russia's social networks had been abuzz with calls on opposition supporters to travel to Astrakhan for the protest and offers of accommodation in the city. Activists have written that planes and trains to the city from Moscow were full.

Earlier, more than 3,000 people shouted slogans in support of Stolyarov in a rally whose attendance, according to the opposition, was massively boosted by the bussing-in of demonstrators on dozens of buses.

"With your support, under my management, everything will be done so that people live well. Thank you for coming today and working for our city to be better," Stolyarov told the rally.

As soon as the pro-government meeting dispersed, local police fenced off the square and prevented anyone from entering, including journalists, the AFP correspondent at the scene said.

Police said the square was closed for a "clean-up" after the earlier rally forcing the opposition to find alternative venues when they gathered for their action.

Shein -- whose hunger strike has been joined by over a dozen supporters -- last week briefly took in juice but then went back to a water-only regime after showing little faith in official promises to investigate his allegations.

According to the official results, Shein only garnered 30 percent of the vote in the mayoral race against his opponent's 60 percent.

He declared last week he was "ready" to die and would only call off his hunger strike in case of "a new honest and clean election". The leader of A Just Russia Sergei Mironov said he was trying to persuade Shein to gradually give up the hunger strike.

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