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MOSCOW - Russian riot police Sunday violently clashed with protesters at a rally on the eve of strongman Vladimir Putin's return for a third Kremlin term, arresting over 250 people including opposition leaders.
The clashes in central Moscow over the river from the Kremlin set an ominous tone ahead of Monday's glitzy inauguration ceremony where Putin will take oath for a third presidential term after his four-year stint as prime minister.
Those arrested included three key leaders of the nascent protest movement against Putin -- the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, liberal leader Boris Nemtsov and ultra-left wing activist Sergei Udaltsov.
Police said they detained over 250 people after demonstrators threw stones and water bottles at officers and blamed the violence on opposition leaders who attempted to stage a sit-in protest in the middle of the crowd.
The event had been billed as a "March of Millions" along one of Moscow's main thoroughfares that was due to conclude at a square used for the first of several mass protests that erupted against Putin's dominant rule this winter.
Organizers said the demonstration drew tens of thousands of people although police gave a much lower figure of 8,000.
Thousands of helmeted riot police took control of the main bridge leading to the square and refused to let the protesters through. A tense standoff lasting more than an hour eventually led to a concerted push by protesters against police ranks.
The police responded by unleashing batons against dozens of people and pushing protesters to the ground before dragging them by their arms and legs to waiting police vans.
Udaltsov was dramatically detained while making a speech on stage on the rally square demanding access for the opposition.
"We will not leave until they free our comrades and they do not cancel the inauguration," Udaltsov shouted through a megaphone. "We will not leave," he said as people chanted back "We Are the Power."
Several policemen then stormed on stage and led Udaltsov away to jeers from the crowd.
Navalny was also seen being roughly arrested by several police while Nemtsov was detained after climbing onto a metal camera stand and attempting to give an impromptu speech to the crowds.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told independent Dozhd TV in a live telephone interview that "we should not over-dramatize the situation" and condemned "provocations" that turned the rally violent.
The protest movement had lost momentum since Putin's thumping March 4 presidential election win against only token opposition.
The latest rally drew a fraction of the mass crowds who joined the winter protests amid questions in the fractured movement -- whose members range between veteran liberals to teenage Stalinists -- about their true cause.
In a sign of the growing disunity, the leader of the opposition liberal Yabloko party lashed out at Udaltsov for splitting away from the mass protest and launching his own action.
"This was not a solid move and was clearly stupid. If he (Udaltsov) continues acting like this then less and less people are going to come to the protests," Sergei Mitrokhin told the Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Putin's supporters gathered for a festive "celebration" filled with high-production pop concerts at Victory Park -- a site dedicated to Russia's 1812 defeat of Napoleon.
The police said 30,000 had come out for the pro-Putin event -- more than three times the figure they gave the opposition protest.
The entire transition from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev to his mentor has been tightly scripted from the moment their intended job swap was revealed to the public last year.
The plan will see Medvedev visit parliament only hours after Putin's swearing-in ceremony to begin consultations that could see his candidacy for the premiership approved by Tuesday evening.