Protesters gather in Moscow for opposition rally

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By MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — Up to 10,000 protesters flocked to a central Moscow avenue Saturday to demand Vladimir Putin's resignation and protest electoral fraud.

Saturday's rally had been widely seen as a test of whether the opposition is able to maintain its strength after Prime Minister Putin won a return to the Kremlin. The turnout was in stark contrast to winter election protests which attracted up to 100,000 people in the largest discontent in Russia's post-Soviet history.

Putin, Russia's president in 2000-2008, had to step down in 2008 to avoid the terms' limitations. He won 64 percent of the vote on Sunday and is set to stay in the Kremlin for the next 6 years.

"This was not an election. This was a special operation from a thug who wanted to return to the Kremlin," opposition leader and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov said from the stage.

Although violations at the presidential vote were numerous, observers, however, have viewed the vote as fairer than December's vote.

But the protesters do not recognize the vote's results. "These weren't elections. This isn't a president," read a banner on the stage.

"I don't believe that this election was fair," 18-year-old student Elizaveta Chernysheva said. "There have been a lot of falsifications."

Russian actor Maksim Vitorgan, who was among thousands of independent observers to have volunteered to monitor the presidential vote, said "an amusement park would envy" the large-scale fraud he witnessed

"We are all humiliated and insulted here," Vitorgan saidPutin "won the war for numbers. He's a president of numbers, not of the people."

"We know the truth, but what are we supposed to do with it?" Vitorgan added, voicing the widespread concern that the opposition movement is losing its voice.

Other protesters, however, remained optimistic despite the fact that Saturday's turnout could not match the massive rallies in December and February.

City authorities had given permission for a rally of up to 50,000 on the sidewalk of the central Novy Arbat avenue which is part of the route used by high-speed motorcades that whisk top figures to and from the Kremlin.

Mikhail Solontsev, a 19-year-old student, who has rallied at opposition protests since December, said the pressure on Putin is already high, and it's up to people to increase it:

"It depends on us whether he will step down or not, but he's already scared of us."

On Monday, the day after the election, Moscow police arrested some 250 people who stayed on a central-city square after the time authorized for a protest rally ran out.

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Nataliya Vasilyeva and Jim Heintz contributed to this report.

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