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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thousands of people rallied on the streets of Moscow on Sunday to demand fair elections and challenge Vladimir Putin's 15-year-old rule, in the first significant opposition protest in the capital for months.
The gathering was restricted by authorities to a district of southern Moscow. Police said no more than 500 took part, while a Reuters witness said there were some 3,000 protesters.
"Putin is a bureaucrat, not the czar," one poster said. Opposition leaders, including anti-Kremlin figurehead Alexei Navalny, said they were protesting against what they called Putin's "lifelong" rule.
"Russia will be free!" Ilya Yashin told the rally. "We will not depart from the country and leave it in the mercy of 'crooks and thieves'," he said, referring to a phrase coined by Navalny to describe Russia's ruling party.
The turnout was a far cry from the 100,000 who marched in December 2011 in anger at widely-reported violations of a parliamentary election.
Thousands of Muscovites marched through the city in March this year in the memory of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.
At Sunday's rally there were posters related to the killing of Nemtsov and a general crackdown on political dissent.
Putin has now been Russia's dominant leader since 2000, when ailing President Boris Yeltsin chose him as his successor. Earlier this month, the ruling United Russia party swept regional elections.
Russia will hold a presidential vote in 2018. Putin, who is eligible to run for the six-year presidency again, has not yet said if he will be a candidate.
Reporting by Andrey Kuzmin; writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Andrew Roche