Nationwide protests against election fraud rolled over Russia on Saturday in the most powerful challenge to the Kremlin in years.

According to organisers, up to 100,000 people thronged a square in central Moscow to protest alleged vote rigging in last Sunday's parliamentary election. Police put the turnout at 25,000. Either way, it was the largest rally Russia has seen in nearly 20 years. Smaller demonstrations were held in St. Petersburg and all major cities across Russia.

The rally in Moscow drew Communists, nationalists and liberals, but the vast majority of participants did not belong to any parties.

“I've come because our votes were stolen,” said Alexei, a 20-year-old IT engineer.

The ruling party, United Russia, won 49.3 per cent of the votes, down from over 64 per cent four years ago. However, independent monitors said the result was inflated by more than 15 per cent.

Demonstrators carried placards with slogans against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is planning to reclaim presidency in the March 2012 election. Some slogans read “Russia without Putin” and “Putin's a Thief”.

The rally in Moscow adopted a resolution demanding cancellation of the disputed election, dismissal and prosecution of the head of the Central Election Commission, recognition of all parties that were denied registration and release of political prisoners.

“The ball is now on the Kremlin's side,” said Gennady Gudkov of the opposition Just Russia party. He said more protest rallies were planned for next week.

Authorities gave official permission to the rally in Moscow and most other cities. About 50,000 police and Interior Ministry troops were deployed in the Russian capital to ensure security, but no major incidents were reported. In contrast to rallies held earlier this week, when police detained hundreds of protesters in Moscow, there were no mass arrests on Saturday.

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