SEVERAL prominent Russian opposition leaders were arrested by riot police last night as they tried to protest against a presidential election result that international monitors said was "clearly skewed" in Vladimir Putin's favour.
Alexei Navalny, the talisman of the anti-Putin movement, was among a hardcore of more than 120 activists who were held by police after they attempted to occupy Moscow's Pushkin Square.
They had been attempting to continue an earlier, sanctioned demonstration against Mr Putin's victory -- attended by about 15,000 people -- when riot police charged in and forcibly evicted them as they tried to set up camp.
There were chaotic scenes as officers dragged Ilya Yashin, a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement, and other activists through the snow toward waiting vans. Sergei Udaltsov, a radical leader of the Left Front, was also among those detained.
It came after election observers said there were "serious problems" with an election in which Mr Putin won a historic third term as Russian president with more than 64 per cent of the vote.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was beset by irregularities and that the "abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt".
"Conditions were clearly skewed in favour of . . . Vladimir Putin," it said, while the election process "deteriorated during the count which was assessed negatively in nearly a third of polling stations".
Tonino Picula, the head of the OSCE parliamentary assembly delegation, added: "The point of an election is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia. It was not a level playing field."
The US urged Russia to conduct an independent investigation into all the allegations.
"We urge the Russian government to conduct an independent, credible investigation of all reported electoral violations," a State Department spokesman said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Mr Putin last night by telephone, telling him that Britain would work with Russia to overcome differences between the two countries.
Before his arrest last night, Mr Navalny led protesters in Moscow as they demonstrated against Mr Putin's triumph, whipping up the crowd with cries of "Russia without Putin!".
Mr Yashin had also given a speech, mocking Mr Putin for crying during his victory rally on Sunday: "Those were not tears of joy. No, my friends, it was fear -- fear in the eyes of a dictator," said Mr Yashin. "Putin knows perfectly well that he has lost his legitimacy."
Mr Putin met three of the four losing candidates earlier and promised them to investigate allegations of electoral fraud. He said he would ask Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia's election commission, to "thoroughly check all possible violations".
But Mr Churov was swift to dismiss claims of fraud, saying that there were likely no more than 300 irregularities compared with the 4,000 suggested by civil election observers.
Independent monitoring groups earlier reported numerous cases of "carousel voting" in which people are driven around to vote for one candidate at several polling stations. (© Daily Telegraph, London)