Russian riot police arrested top opposition leaders

Moscow: Russian riot police on Tuesday arrested top opposition leaders and hundreds of activists who were seeking to stage a protest rally against alleged ballot rigging in favour of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin`s ruling party during the parliament election.

The authorities have deployed thousands of riot police and interior troops in the capital in the wake of Tuesday night`s mass rally and demonstration against Prime Minister Putin, whose United Russia won 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma in Sunday`s polls, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007.

Ex-vice premier in Boris Yeltsin cabinet, Boris Nemtsov and chief of the local chapter of liberal `Yabloko` party Sergei Mitrokhin have been arrested in down-town Moscow, while attempting to stage protest rally against alleged ballot rigging at Sunday`s Duma polls.

ITAR-TASS news agency said Nemtsov, Mitrokhin and others were arrested while trying to enter a `sanctioned` rally of five thousand pro-Kremlin `Young Guard` youth group.

Opposition supporters shouted "Shame on you fascists!" and "Russia without Putin" in a tense stand-off with hundreds of pro-Kremlin youth who descended on the site in advance.

There is a total black out of the opposition rallies on the state-controlled TV channels and the liberal websites remain the only source of information.

However, the government-run RIA Novosti on its English wire portal showed live webcast of events on the Triumfalnaya Square (former Mayakovsky Square), the favourite place for anti-Kremlin opposition.

President Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Foreign Ministry have reacted angrily at the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton`s criticism of the Duma polls. She said they were `neither free nor fair`. Clinton expressed "serious concerns" while contending that Russia voters deserved a "full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation".

At a televised meeting with Chief Election Commissioner Vladimir Churov, Medvedev said the foreign powers have no right to tell Russia what to do with its election laws.

The Foreign Ministry statement said the US comments were `unacceptable` and America needs to put its own election laws in order, which were `far from transparent`, and this explains why most of the US citizens do not go to vote at all.

Putting up a brave front after being hit by a poll debacle, allegations of ballot rigging and massive demonstrations denouncing his leadership, Putin today said the election losses were, but "inevitable" for an incumbent party.

Responding to the opposition branding his United Russia – a party of "swindlers and thieves", Putin said it was the fate of anyone in power and reminded that in the past the Soviet government officials were also called "thieves".

Putin`s statement came a day after his United Russia party lost its parliamentary majority in Sunday`s Duma polls that were marred by accusations of fraud by independent observers.

An anti-Putin wave seemed to have swept Moscow following the results as thousands of protesters, the largest in over a decade, took to the streets chanting a "Russia without Putin!" and "Down with the Party of Swindlers and Thieves!".

Even as hundreds were arrested and thousands of troops were deployed to prevent another demonstration in the capital, Putin sought to play down the election reverses, saying his party had retained a "stable" majority.

"Yes, there were losses, but they were inevitable," the 59-year-old Russian strongman, a former KGB agent, said. "They are inevitable for any political force, particularly for the one which has been carrying the burden of responsibility for the situation in the country," he said.

Tuesday night, the Russian capital witnessed its biggest mass protest in years as thousands took to streets shouting anti-Putin slogans, challenging the outcome of Sunday`s Duma polls.

The rally allowed by city authorities in downtown Moscow, outside the Chistiye Prudi metro station, last night turned into a mass protest against Putin and his party. According to various claims, from 2,000 to 10,000 people had gathered.