Violent clashes at Russian anti-government protest

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Riot police clashed with opposition supporters today at the end of an anti-Kremlin protest in Russia's second-largest city, chasing small groups of demonstrators, beating some on the ground and hauling them into police buses.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the violence after the rally, which city authorities had authorised and which took place under a heavy police presence with at least one helicopter hovering above. No information was immediately available about how many people had been injured.

Although city authorities gave permission for the rally in a square on the edge of central St Petersburg, they banned plans for the demonstrators to march afterwards to the city's government headquarters.

Police trucks and helmeted officers blocked the planned march route. At the end of the 90-minute rally, organisers did not call on them to march along the banned route, but suggested instead that they go on their own to the city government building over the next few days.

When the rally dispersed, most participants went to a nearby subway station, where clashes broke out.

In one, police chased a group that included Sergei Gulyayev, a member of the city legislature who had been arrested at a protest in March. Police grabbed some members of the group and pounded them over the head with truncheons before putting them on buses; it was not immediately known if Gulyayev was among those taken away.

In another clash, police charged a group holding a banner professing love for the city.

The violence came a day after clashes at a similar opposition protest in Moscow, where police detained at least 170 people. The protests in both cities were called to focus on complaints that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is strangling democracy ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections.

"Yesterday, it became clear that the authorities won't be making any concessions. They have started a war on people," Eduard Limonov, head of the National Bolshevik Party, told today's rally.

"Putin and his team are sitting on sacks of gold, at the same time the country is breaking apart in all spheres," said demonstrator Sergei Niluopv, a 56-year-old teacher.

One of the rally organisers, Olga Kurnosova, told The Associated Press that police detained her near her home a few hours before the demonstration.

She said by telephone from a police station that she was held for distributing brochures about the rally, which she said was an artificial pretext because city authorities had given permission for the demonstration.

"It's clear that the reason was to keep me away from the demonstration," she said.

The weekend protests were part of a series of "Dissenters' Marches" called by the Other Russia umbrella group that brings together an array of opposition factions including one led by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Kasparov was among those arrested in Moscow and was released late last night after being fined 1,000 rubles (£19) for disrupting public order. He did not go to St Petersburg for the Sunday rally.

Kurnosova, who heads the St Petersburg branch of Kasparov's United Civil Front, had said yesterday that she expected the tough police action in Moscow to provoke a large turnout in St Petersburg. But the crowd appeared to be less numerous than organisers had hoped for, filling only about half of the area marked off by metal barricades for the rally.

Putin, whose second and last term ends in 2008, has created an obedient parliament, and the government has reasserted control over major television networks, giving little air time to its critics.