Hundreds of anti-Putin protesters held
Moscow - Russian police arrested over 500 people protesting Vladimir Putin's crushing victory in elections that the opposition denounced as illegitimate and international monitors said were skewed.
Western powers reacted warily to the prospect of Putin returning in a May inauguration to the Kremlin for a six-year term from his current job as premier, urging a full investigation into the reports of violations.
Police said they arrested 250 people in Moscow and 300 in Saint Petersburg on Monday after moving in roughly to break up rallies claiming that the polls the previous day were rigged.
Around 20 000 anti-Putin protestors turned out in Pushkin Square in central Moscow chanting "Russia Yes! Putin No!" Most of the rally broke up peacefully but police moved in to disperse hundreds of people who refused to leave the square.
Amid frantic scenes, they arrested dozens by dragging them to waiting police vans, an AFP correspondent said.
Among those arrested were Russian anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, seen in some quarters as a possible future rival to Putin, and two other opposition leaders, Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin.
"People were calm, but at some point police started moving in, kicking people, tearing their clothes," Yashin told independent Dozhd TV from the police van by phone.
Moscow police also roughly arrested dozens of protesters at a separate unsanctioned event near the central election commission, including the leader of the Other Russia radical opposition group Eduard Limonov.
An AFP reporter saw similar police action at an unauthorised meeting in Putin's native Saint Petersburg and a local police spokesperson quoted by Russian news agencies said a total of 300 people had been detained.
The protests came after official results showed Putin won just under 64% of Sunday's ballot to win back the Kremlin seat he held for the maximum two terms from 2000-2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister.
His Communist Party challenger Gennady Zyuganov refused to recognise the results after winning just 17% while the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov sprang a surprise to finish third despite building his base from scratch.
Election-rigging claims have shadowed these polls just as they had done at parliamentary elections in December that were followed by three months of the biggest anti-Kremlin demonstrations since Soviet times.
"Our aim is elections within the year. Otherwise revolution is inevitable," said Putin's former prime minister turned bitter Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov.
Putin's fans earlier staged their own highly-choreographed rally in front of the Kremlin that the city estimated at 15 000 strong, and which included a call to "protect our victory".
International observers led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the campaign had been massively tilted in Putin's favour and was followed by major irregularities in the vote count.
"Conditions [for the campaign] were clearly skewed in favour of... Vladimir Putin" while the vote count was "assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities", they said.
Russia's independent monitoring group Golos published a report that showed Putin winning less than 51% and said the polls "were neither free nor fair".
The West gave a wary greeting to the comeback of the man who has often pursued an antagonistic foreign policy.
The US State Department said it looked forward to working with Putin once election results are certified but urged the authorities to probe voting irregularities.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told Putin by phone that he would work with him to overcome differences between the two countries.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated Putin, while urging him to "continue democratic and economic modernisation".
Earlier French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe gave a cool reaction to Putin's return to the Russian presidency, saying the election "was not exemplary" but accepting that his controversial victory was not in doubt.