Choppers patrol Moscow skies after protests

December 7, 2011 - 5:50 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of security forces were out in the Russian capital Wednesday, while helicopters roamed the sky, a show of force following protests over scandal-marred elections that saw Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party struggle to keep a majority.

The protests Monday and Tuesday were an unusually sustained show of indignation for the Russian opposition. The thousands of Russians who rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg faced off with police and Interior Ministry troops, who detained hundreds of protesters.

More opposition rallies were expected Wednesday, along with some pro-Putin gatherings. Putin was expected to formally register later in the day to run for president, a position he held from 2000-2008, a period in which he grew more authoritarian.

Sunday's parliamentary vote suggested Russians are tiring of Putin and his United Russia party. Preliminary results indicate the party won less than 50 percent of votes, a steep fall from its earlier majority. Some opposition parties and international observers said the poll was marred by widespread reports and allegations of vote-rigging.

The allegations have fired up the opposition, which has long seen its protests crushed and its pleas ignored by the Kremlin-dominated media. On Facebook, more than 10,000 people signed up to a page announcing an opposition rally for Saturday.

Authorities said Tuesday that at least 51,500 police officers and 2,000 Interior Ministry troops have been deployed in Moscow since the election. Unlike the police, Interior Ministry troops are an armed force, largely manned by conscripts.

On Wednesday, Muscovites spotted dozens of helicopters patrolling the city — a rare sight in the capital.

At least 300 people were detained by police at a protest in downtown Moscow on Tuesday night that included flare-type fireworks thrown at a group of pro-Kremlin youth, said city police spokesman Maxim Kolosvetov.

Russian news agencies reported about 200 were arrested at a similar attempt to hold an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg and another 25 in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The Moscow protest ended after around 3 1/2 hours and the others were broken up by police.

But pro-Kremlin supporters also put on a pair of large rallies in Moscow, attracting thousands and showing vehement divisions in Russian society.

Although Sunday's election results signal that Putin's return to the presidency in next March's election may not be as easy as he expected, he has downplayed the reduced majority.

He said it was "inevitable" because voters always are unhappy with the party in power. He also dismissed allegations of corruption among his United Russia party members.

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Varvara Kudryavtseva contributed to this report.