AFP, ST. PETERSBURG, Russia
Russian riot police detained opposition leaders and 150 protesters in Saint Petersburg yesterday as they broke up the second demonstration against Russian President Vladimir Putin in two days.
Exactly a week ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections, anti-riot troops swarmed through St. Petersburg to prevent a small group of protesters from marching on the historic Winter Palace, home of the tsars until the Bolshevik Revolution.
A correspondent witnessed about 150 arrests, including Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the opposition SPS party and a presidential hopeful in the March 2 presidential elections.
Echo of Moscow radio reported that Nikita Belykh, the top leader in the SPS, was also detained.
The disturbances came 24 hours after police broke up a similar anti-Putin march of about 2,000 people in Moscow, arresting chess legend turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov. A court late on Saturday sentenced Kasparov to five days in jail.
In St. Petersburg, police could be seen clubbing seven activists from the radical leftist youth group the National Bolsheviks before forcing them into a van, along with others gathering for the unauthorized demonstration.
Other political figures detained included Maxim Reznik, local head of the opposition party Yabloko, and other leading activists with the SPS party.
Kasparov's The Other Russia coalition accuses the Kremlin of corruption, crushing dissent and rigging the upcoming parliamentary elections to ensure victory for Putin's United Russia party.
Putin is due to step down after a presidential poll in March, but is standing as the lead candidate of United Russia, which is forecast to win at least two thirds of the seats in the State Duma.
City authorities refused to authorize a march, giving permission only for a stationary demonstration in a different square.
Police deployed en masse well before the rally. Officers stood in line, each separated by about 5m, the entire length of the city's central Nevsky Avenue.
"They have launched a military operation in the city," said Olga Kurnosova, an aide to Kasparov.
"The authorities are scared of people who do not want to support the Putin personality cult," she said.
Putin on Wednesday described his opponents as Western-backed "jackals" and promised a "total renewal" of Russia's leadership in the coming election season.