Police violently dispersed anti-Kremlin rallies in Russia's largest cities and detained dozens of protesters

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(Reuters) - Police violently dispersed anti-Kremlin rallies in Russia's largest cities and detained dozens of protesters on Monday, as President Dmitry Medvedev was set to welcome European Union leaders at a summit.

The crackdown on protesters came two days after Russia's widely popular and powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that he did not oppose peaceful protests.

Clashes between riot police and protesters occurred shortly after at least 1,000 opposition activists -- several times more than usual -- gathered in Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow, chanting "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin."

The crowd shouted "fascists" at police and booed as they grabbed protesters -- often knocking then down and dragging them along the pavement to nearby buses.

One riot policeman was seen beating young women. A man in his early 20s had a beaten face, with blood dripping from his nose onto the pavement. One elderly woman had her arms twisted and was thrown into a police bus for chanting "Freedom."

A police official told Reuters police had to use force after protesters tried to disrupt a concert given nearby to a crowd of pro-Kremlin youths and attempted to block traffic in a busy central thoroughfare.

Russian opposition groups last year began to hold rallies on the last day of each month to defend article 31 of the constitution, which guarantees the right of assembly.

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In Russia's second largest city of St Petersburg, some 300 members of the banned ultra-left National Bolshevik Party gathered in the central Nevsky Prospekt and attached a plaque reading "Freedom Avenue, 31" to one of the buildings.

At least 100 people were detained.

"European leaders in their summit with Russia must not leave these obstructions unaddressed," Heidi Hautala, who chairs the European Parliament's subcommittee on human rights, told reporters in St Petersburg.

"I strongly condemn the violent oppression of peaceful demonstrations in Russia," she said.

As in Moscow, some St Petersburg protestors said they had joined peaceful demonstrations after Putin, criticized in the West for backtracking on democracy, said at the weekend that he saw nothing wrong with peaceful protest.

Boris Nemtsov, a staunch anti-Kremlin opposition leader, said the authorities had only allowed a demonstration in St Petersburg's Palace Square, a major tourist attraction, to pass off peacefully because a member of the European Parliament was present.

"Putin has shown hypocrisy and cynicism," Nemtsov said. "He says one thing, promises another and does a third. Today in Moscow and St Petersburg protesters were beaten for nothing."

Three dozen people gathered in the southern Russian city of Rostov as President Dmitry Medvedev met EU leaders nearby at the start of a two-day summit.

"People are afraid. Afraid of losing their jobs. Afraid of being beaten up," said Yelena Belan, a 48-year-old ecologist who wore a vest emblazoned with the words "Putin is killing Russia."

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