Two thousand defy ban on Moscow rock protest

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Some 2,000 people Sunday crammed into a Moscow square amid a heavy police presence for a banned rock concert to protest plans to build a motorway through a forest outside the Russian capital.

The numbers were far higher than for past opposition rallies in Moscow but the concert failed to get off the ground after police refused to allow amplification gear through tight security, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.

However, veteran rocker Yuri Shevchuk, who opposed the Soviet regime and now the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, pleased his fans by climbing onto a stepladder and singing some well-loved songs without a microphone.

Dozens of police vehicles and members of the feared OMON anti-riot police, equipped with helmets and bullet-proof vests, thronged the square.

The concert's aim was to buttress efforts by environmental activists to oppose the construction of a highway through Khimki forest outside Moscow, which has become a symbol for Russians fighting for their rights.

While the demonstration on Pushkin Square against the construction of the road had been sanctioned by the Moscow authorities, they had explicitly banned the holding of a concert.

"We came to make beautiful speeches and sing beautiful songs. But we have a problem," Artemi Troitski, one of the organisers, told AFP.

"The sound equipment is in the car over there and the security forces are not allowing it to come on the square."

Several opposition activists were detained ahead of the rally, including prominent campaigner Lev Ponomaryov, officials said.

Another 20 activists, including Mikhail Shneider of opposition movement Solidarnost and ex-government minister Boris Nemtsov, were also detained in an earlier protest as they tried to carry a Russian flag in central Moscow to celebrate the official Flag Day holiday.

"The problem is that -- for one reason or another -- the authorities are scared of people with guitars," Shevchuk told AFP as he arrived for the rally, clutching his guitar.

The Khimki forest northwest of Moscow is a "symbol of the civic struggle against the arbitrariness of the state," he added.

Shevchuk in May had openly challenged Putin telling him at a face-to-face meeting that Russia was being ruled by "dukes and princes with sirens on their cars" and demonstrations are broken up by "repressive" security services.

Shevchuk, one of a number of dissident Soviet rockers who made their names in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), sang his famous ballad Rodina (Motherland), whose chorus was up taken by the crowd.

"It is our forest! Russia without Putin!," chanted the crowds. One banner read "Putin allowed the forest to be chopped down." Others shouted, "Give us sound!"

Authorities have repeatedly used force to disperse anti-government protests in Moscow, even though the country's opposition is weak and fragmented and its protests usually do not attract a lot of sympathisers.

One activist said unknown assailants had even sought to prevent the musical equipment from even reaching the site of the concert rally.

"Several bikers in black outfits and motorcycle helmets, their faces hidden, surrounded two Gazelle trucks carrying sound equipment for the event," said Pyotr Verzilov, an activist with art collective Voina, or War.

"They jumped off their motorbikes and started trying to pierce the vehicles' tyres with iron rods," Verzilov said on Echo of Moscow, adding the drivers managed to chase the attackers away.

The controversy over the road sparked a rare violent protest in July when demonstrators hurled smoke bombs and smashed windows at the local administration building in Khimki.

The Moscow authorities also appear to have also been rattled by discontent over the handling of deadly wildfires that raged in the region this summer and the decision of the city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to stay on holiday as the crisis intensified.

© 2010 AFP

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