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Police crack down on protesters while Putin speaks of compromise

Undeterred by a sudden escalation in the Kremlin's crackdown on the opposition, tens of thousands of protesters thronged Moscow streets Tuesday in the first mass protest against Vladimir Putin since he returned to the presidency in May.

The crowd was even larger than at a demonstration on the eve of Putin's inauguration, which disintegrated into violent clashes and ushered in the crackdown.

Tuesday's rally ended peacefully, as both protesters and riot police took pains to prevent a confrontation as tensions were already running high.

Putin, in his address on Russia Day, a national holiday, spoke of the need "to strive for mutual understanding and to find compromise."

Putin has taken a tougher stance on the opposition since beginning his third term May 7, but in recent days the pressure has risen markedly.

Some of the protest leaders were called in for questioning Tuesday, a day after investigators raided their apartments, carting away computers, cellphones and in at least one case envelopes stuffed with cash. The interrogations are to continue throughout the week.

In addition, fines for taking part in unauthorized rallies were stiffened under a new law hastily passed by parliament last week and signed by Putin on Friday.

The Kremlin appeared to be betting that the tougher measures would frighten away the well-educated, urban protesters, many of them young, white-collar professionals. But those who came out Tuesday said they were determined to make their voices heard.

"I came just so that I can show this enormous, expansive Russia that there are people who aren't afraid of the laws that the government passes," said Tatyana Fedorenko, a retired teacher.

The number of protesters has declined since the anti-Putin demonstrations in the months ahead of the March presidential election, which drew as many as 100,000 onto the streets in the dead of a Moscow winter.

But a turnout of tens of thousands on May 6 -- and again on Tuesday -- was still impressive in a country where such political protests attracted no more than a few hundred people only several months ago.

Liberal activist Ilya Yashin, who was among the several opposition leaders questioned, was released just in time to speak at the end of the six-hour demonstration. "You can't scare all of us, and if you take away one of us, dozens will come in our place," he said.

In his Russia Day speech, Putin made some unusually conciliatory comments about the unprecedented challenge to his 12-year rule. He said the differing points of view about the future of Russia were to be expected in a "free, democratic country."

"Therefore, it is important to listen and respect one another, to strive for mutual understanding and to find compromise, to unite our society around a positive agenda," Putin said at the Kremlin ceremony.

He also spoke of the need for stability and said any actions that could divide society or lead to social unrest were unacceptable.