(AP) MOSCOW - Riot police on Monday broke up an opposition protest contesting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's presidential election, arresting dozens of participants, including prominent opposition leaders.
The police action followed a rally in downtown Moscow that drew about 20,000 protesters angry over a campaign slanted in Putin's favor and reports of widespread violations in Sunday's ballot.
The big rally went on peacefully, but hundreds of police in full riot gear violently dispersed several hundred protesters who had vowed to stay on the iconic Pushkin Square in downtown Moscow until Putin steps down.
Police moved quickly to put out the protests, apparently fearing that it could act as a catalyst for bigger opposition action.
Charismatic protest leader Alexei Navalny, who sought to electrify the crowd with a passionate call of "We are the power!" was among those arrested along with opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. Scores were put in police vans parked around the square.
Putin won more than 63 percent of the vote according to the nearly complete official returns, but the opposition says the election was marred by massive fraud.
The campaign has been unfair, cowardly and treacherous," said opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who had been denied registration for the race on a technicality.
International election monitors pointed at the lack of real competition and said the vote count "was assessed negatively" in almost a third of polling stations observers visited.
"There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," said Tonino Picula, the head of the short-term Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission. "Broadcast media was clearly biased in favor of one candidate and did not provide fair coverage of the other candidates."
Russian observers pointed at numerous reports of "carousel voting," in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times and various other violations, saying their number appeared to be as high as in December's disputed parliamentary vote that kicked off the protests.
Monday's rally was been sanctioned by authorities but security was tight, with some 12,000 police deployed to ensure order.
Udaltsov, one of the protest organizers, urged protesters to stay on the square until Putin steps down.
"If it was a free election, why have they flooded the entire city with troops?" Udaltsov shouted to the crowd, which responded with cries: "They fear us!"
A few hundred demonstrators heeded Udaltsov's call to stay the square after the rally was over. Hundreds of riot police surrounded them, but waited for more than an hour before they moved to break up the protest.
Earlier, police also rounded up protesters who tried to walk toward the Kremlin after the big rally was over. They also quickly arrested Eduard Limonov, the leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party and several dozen of his supporters, who attempted to hold a protest on the Lubyanka Square near the headquarters of Russia's election commission. The main KGB successor agency is also located on Lubyanka.
About 100 protesters were also arrested in St. Petersburg, where about 2,000 gathered for an unauthorized rally.
The independent Russian elections watchdog Golos said Monday that incomplete reports from its observers of individual polling station counts contradicted the official vote count, indicating that Putin hovered perilously close to the 50-percent mark needed for a first-round victory.
"It's one pixel away from a second round," said Golos' Roman Udot.
Putin's win was assured as he faced a weak slate of Kremlin-approved candidates and many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.
He has relied on massive coverage by state television stations, denouncing his foes as Western stooges working to weaken Russia.
Putin claimed victory Sunday night when fewer than a quarter of the votes had been counted, his eyes brimming with tears. He defiantly proclaimed just outside the Kremlin walls before a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on "destroying Russia's statehood and usurping power."
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded Putin in the past on Twitter, reacted quickly to the images ofwith an acerbic Tweet:
The protesters on Monday derided Putin's tears as an evidence of his fear of the opposition.
"We have seen a man who wasn't sure of himself," said Ilya Yashin, one of the opposition leaders.
Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Putin's first term before turning an opposition leader, urged the protesters to focus on demanding a rerun of the fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December, which allowed Putin's party to retain its majority in the lower house.
"Early Duma election is our immediate goal!" he shouted. "Putin is afraid of us!"
He also ordered the prosecutor-general to re-examine the legality of the conviction of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and more than 30 others regarded by the opposition as political prisoners, in an apparent attempt to soothe protesters.
The West can expect Putin to continue the tough policies he has pursued even as prime minister, including opposing U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.
The U.S. administration congratulated the Russian people for turning out to vote in big numbers in Sunday's election, but also expressed concern about allegations of fraud and urged a full investigation into the charges.
The State Department said Monday that the U.S. would work with Russia's "president-elect" once the votes are certified, but pointedly did not mention victor Vladimir Putin by name or offer any congratulations to Putin.
Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov was a distant second in the election, followed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team whose candidacy was approved by the Kremlin in what was seen as an effort to channel some of the protest sentiment. Prokhorov attended Monday's protest.
The clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and socialist Sergei Mironov trailed behind. The leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party was barred from the race.
Here's a list of the main violations reported during Sunday's ballot:
Voting outside designated polling stations
According to Golos, many voters cast their ballots either right at their state-run enterprises or under their bosses' watchful eyes, while others were bused to polling stations where they were not on voter rolls and where there was little oversight over voting.
Use of absentee ballots
Over 2 million absentee ballots were used in the election, and Golos monitors said that allowed for widespread violations. Many workers of state-controlled enterprises were forced to obtain absentee ballots and then vote under supervision. Absentee ballots were also used in multiple voting.
Voting more than once
Golos said "carousel voting," in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times, also was widespread. Often, the offenders walked into polling stations wearing ribbons around their arms or with special marks in their passports, which they presented as identification. Election officials then identified those people as carousel voters and gave them the ballots of voters who were unlikely to show up.
A web-camera video from a village in the southern province of Dagestan shows several men standing at an electronic ballot box and feeding dozens of ballots into it for several minutes. Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov described the incident as the local election officials' "fatal mistake." Churov explained that those ballots had been filled out by sick or elderly people voting at home and that election officials were merely depositing them in the ballot box. In the end, voting results at that polling station were annulled after the complaints.
Paid to vote
Another video shows an activist who signed up on an Internet forum to take part in multiple (carousel) voting for 1,000 rubles ($33). The video, shot by the activist, shows him meeting the organizers at a subway station and then being bused to a nearby polling station. The activist and a dozen other people are shown lining up to receive the ballots and then voting at the station. Their names appear on a separate list at the polling station.
Not free or fair
Andrei Buzin, an election expert at Golos, said that the falsifications were not widespread enough to have left Putin with less than 50 percent of the vote and require a runoff, but the vote was still skewed. "I wouldn't call these elections free or fair," Buzin said.
The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe said "there was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt." The watchdog noted that the election "process deteriorated during the vote count, which was assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed."