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Moscow (AFP) - Thousands of Russians on Sunday marched through Moscow to protest against the Kremlin's involvement in the Ukraine crisis, in the country's first major anti-war rally since fighting erupted in April.
A huge column of protesters moved through the heart of the capital to condemn Moscow's role in a conflict that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and pitted Russians against Ukrainians.
The two-hour march -- one of the largest since President Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in 2012 -- was a riot of colour with scores of anti-Kremlin slogans, music, drum beats and chants.
Some carried blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and chanted "Peace to Ukraine, freedom to Russia, jail for Putin" as the strains of John Lennon's "All You Need Is Love" wafted through the crowds.
Armed with placards saying "Forgive us, Ukraine" and "Putin, stop lying", many participants said the Russian president should pull troops out of Ukraine and stop meddling in the affairs of the fellow Slavic country.
"I believe the war has been provoked by Putin," said wheelchair-bound protester Vladimir Kashitsyn, aged 44.
The rally, dubbed "The Peace March", came amid a Russian media blackout on the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.
Kiev and the West say the Kremlin has sent in regular troops to prop up pro-Moscow separatists fighting against Kiev. Moscow has denied the claim.
- 'Don't want boys to die' -
Many protesters condemned the deployment of troops and the secret funerals of soldiers.
"I don't want our boys to die in Ukraine just as they did in Chechnya and Afghanistan," read a placard carried by 73-year-old Marina Bagrovnikova.
The rally brought together young and old, ordinary and prominent Russians, die-hard activists and political novices.
Prominent writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya was in attendance, as were former government-officials-turned-opposition-activists Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov.
Moscow police, which tend to downplay the popularity of opposition rallies, said nearly 5,000 had turned up.
They said that supporters of eastern Ukraine's self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic were among the crowd.
Protesters said the turnout had beaten exceptions.
"This makes me happy, I had not expected this," said 45-year-old entrepreneur Inna Sekhnaidze.
Some chanted slogans of Ukraine's uprising, which ousted a Kremlin-backed president in February, such as "Out with the gang" and "Glory to Ukraine".
The march -- which started from the Pushkin Square and ended on Sakharov Avenue, site of major opposition demonstrations in 2011-2012, revived many of anti-Kremlin chants like "Putin is a thief."
One of the organisers, Sergei Davidis, said it was difficult to provide precise figures but that up to 40,000 might have turned out.
Moscow authorities had given permission for up to 50,000 to march through the city centre.
Some 1,000 people also turned up for an unsanctioned rally in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg, an AFP correspondent reported.
-'Crime against Ukraine'-
Since the start of the crisis, national television has portrayed Kiev authorities as a "fascist junta" bent on persecuting Russian-speakers.
Following a crackdown on dissent after Putin's comeback in 2012, opposition rallies have become increasingly rare and anyone who dared to publicly question the Kremlin's Ukraine policy has been pilloried.
Protesters at the march said the war in Ukraine should be stopped at all costs.
"This war is a madness and a crime against Ukraine, residents of Donbass and Russians," said 34-year-old Igor Yasin.
Olga Popova said it was important to show authorities that many did not approve of their policies.
"What else can I do for Ukraine?" said the 33-year-old, sporting a flower wreath with ribbons, the traditional Ukrainian woman's headdress.
A ceasefire agreed between Kiev and separatists on September 5 to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine has been punctuated by repeated clashes, and many fear it could easily break down.
Pro-Kremlin Russians condemned the march.
"Does Russia need this plague?" lawmaker and former boxer Nikolai Valuyev said on Twitter.
Thousands also rallied in Moscow on March 15 against the annexation of Crimea, a day before the peninsula voted to split from Ukraine.