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30,000 people march in Moscow to back Putin: police

Some 30,000 people marched through central Moscow on Thursday in support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bid for the Russian presidency, police in the capital said in a statement.

Under the slogan “Protect the Country”, Putin’s supporters were marching along the Moscow river embankment towards the Luzhniki sports stadium where they will gather for a rally ahead of the March 4 polls.

Along the way, the participants were being offered free tea and Russian pies dished out from tents erected on the road. Police closed off access to the embankment as soon as the march got underway, an AFP correspondent reported.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, speaking to AFP, refused to confirm or deny if the Russian leader would take part in the rally at Luzhniki stadium, a venue used for Moscow’s biggest football matches and rock concerts.

The event clearly aims to be a riposte to the three mass rallies staged by the opposition since December 4 parliamentary elections which were tarnished by allegations of widespread vote-rigging.

Russian opposition media have alleged employees at public companies and students were encouraged or even compelled to take part to swell numbers, while workers have been brought in by train or bus from across Russia.

But Putin’s campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin denied that anyone was being obliged to take part in the event, which organisers hope will see 100,000 attend the rally later in the day.

“We are not rounding up anyone, we are inviting everyone,” the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.