Russian riot police detain a protester during the "march of the million" opposition protest in central Moscow May 6, 2012. Russian riot police beat protesters about the head with batons and detained 250 on Sunday after clashes broke out at a Moscow rally by thousands of people against Vladimir Putin on the eve of his return to the presidency. (Reuters Pictures)
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian riot police beat protesters with batons and hauled away dozens on Sunday after skirmishes broke out at a demonstration in Moscow against Vladimir Putin on the eve of his return to the presidency.
Opposition leaders Alexei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Udaltsov were among those detained at the rally, at which police tried to push back protesters who advanced towards them holding metal crowd barriers, Reuters reporters at the rally said.
Police, forming a line to prevent protesters moving towards a bridge leading across the Moscow river to the Kremlin, struck several protesters on the head and the demonstrators then fought back with flagposts before the scuffles died down.
The violence came at the end of a day of protests in several cities against Putin, who will be sworn in for a third term as president on Monday at a ceremony inside the Kremlin at which the head of the Russian Orthodox Church will bless him.
Many of the protesters are angry that Putin is extending his 12-year domination of Russia, despite being undermined by large protests from December to March, and fear he will stifle political and economic reform in his six-year term.
"History shows that if one person rules for a long time, especially using the methods of a dictator, nothing good comes of it for the country," said an 85-year-old World War Two veteran in Moscow who gave his name only as Alexander.
Many are frustrated that the same faces are still leading Russia. After Putin ushered his ally Dmitry Medvedev into the Kremlin and became premier in 2008 because of constitutional term limits, the two have agreed simply to swap jobs.
Holding a banner saying "Putin lost my trust", 44-year-old Moscow protester Andrey Asianov said: "I trusted Putin as long as he ruled within the bounds of the constitution but our law limits the presidency to two consecutive terms. He and his clown Medvedev spat on that."
At least 20,000 people protested in Moscow under banners and flags, chanting "Russia without Putin" and "Putin - thief". Police said four officers were hurt and Udaltsov, Nemtsov and Navalny had been detained for "incitement to mass disorder".
A wounded opposition protester winces in pain during a rally in Moscow on Sunday, May 6, 2012. Riot police in Moscow have begun arresting protesters who were trying to reach the Kremlin in a demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration as president. (AP Photo)
Russian riot police scuffle with protesters during the "march of the million" opposition protest in central Moscow May 6, 2012. Russian riot police beat protesters with batons and hauled away dozens on Sunday after skirmishes broke out at a demonstration in Moscow against Vladimir Putin on the eve of his return to the presidency. (Reuters Pictures)