In this June 17, 2010 file photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks after inspecting a new Russian fighter jet after its test flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow, Russia. (AP)
(AP) MOSCOW - Thousands of Russians gathered Monday for a massive rally to challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's presidential election, chanting "Shame!" and "Russia without Putin!"
Demonstrators are contesting the outcome of the vote, pointing to a campaign heavily slanted in Putin's favor and to reports of widespread violations in Sunday's ballot.
Putin won more than 63 percent of the vote according to the nearly complete official returns, but the opposition and independent observers say the election has been 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.
The violations in the vote added fuel to Monday's protest in downtown Moscow by Putin's foes, who are demanding an end to his 12-year rule. The rally, which follows a series of massive previous protests, has been sanctioned by authorities but security was tight, with some 12,000 police deployed to ensure order.
"We are going to hold new elections," said Yevgeny Natarov, a 38-year old Moscow resident who attended the opposition protest.
Sergei Udaltsov, one of the organizers, urged protesters to stay on Moscow's iconic Pushkin Square until Putin steps down.
"If it was a free election, why have they flooded the entire city of troops?" Udaltsov shouted to the crowd, which responded with cries: "They fear us!"
The police presence was intense near the site of Monday's protest and other areas of the capital, with dozens of trucks carrying riot shield-wielding police and vans used for detaining protesters parked around downtown. Prosecutors warned the rally's organizers they would face criminal responsibility for any unsactioned protests.
Police quickly rounded up Eduard Limonov, the leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party and several dozen of his supporters, who attempted to hold an unsanctioned protest near the headquarters of Russia's main security agency.
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 denounced his foes as Western stooges working to weaken Russia.
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.