Leading Kremlin critics, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov, said they were barred yesterday from flying to a protest rally near the site of an EU-Russia summit in southern Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing the EU at talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said she was "worried" after activists were unable to board a plane in Moscow for a rally in the city of Samara.
The demonstration organized by Kasparov's The Other Russia coalition aimed to draw attention to what organizers say is Putin's dismantling of democracy.
Although the demonstration was authorized -- unlike several others this year that were violently dispersed -- police have for two weeks been detaining leaders, organizers and journalists connected to the rally.
The flight "has left and not one member of The Other Russia delegation ... was allowed to board," said Denis Bilunov, a spokesman for Kasparov.
Opposition activists said a variety of reasons were given to stop them boarding the flight, which would reach Samara just hours before the start of the protest, including questions over the validity of tickets and overbooking.
Among those stuck in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport was veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov.
His organization, For Human Rights, issued a statement saying he was being questioned for possessing an "allegedly fake ticket."
In Samara there was a heavy police presence through the city center ahead of the rally.
Merkel, who was meeting with Putin at a spa resort in the Samara region, told journalists she was "worried by the fact that several people had problems with their transport, but I hope that they will be able to express their opinion."
Merkel, speaking through an interpreter, said police had a duty to stop violent protests.
"But if the person has done nothing and just happens to be at the demonstration site, then this is another matter," she said.
Also meeting with Putin was European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
The EU and the US have sharply criticized Putin's hard line on street protests.
Influential US congressman Tom Lantos, who chairs the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, accused Putin of "abuse and repression of dissidents."
"Russia's tactics under the KGB colonel now in charge of the Kremlin threaten to send the country back to its authoritarian past," he said on Thursday.
Putin, who enjoys soaring popularity ratings, denies curbing Russia's democracy.
Moscow also rejected any involvement in blocking Kasparov and others from boarding their plane.
"I cannot comment on behalf of the police. The Kremlin was not in Sheremetyevo," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "I don't think the issue of the non-arrival of a Russian citizen, even a famous one ... will be on the summit agenda."
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