The protests against the government's benefits programme have been part of the largest outburst of public anger since President Vladimir Putin came to power five years ago.

The reform, substituting cherished benefits such as free transportation for pensioners and other groups with cash payments that many say are inadequate, has dented Putin's popularity and prompted an unsuccessful Communist-led effort aimed at bringing down the Cabinet earlier in the week.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said nearly 240,000 Russians demonstrated across the country, but said the ministry did not have a breakdown between the pro- and anti-Putin rallies. A Communist Party official claimed the anti-Putin protests drew more than 200,000 nationwide.

Pensioners protest

In Moscow, about 3000 people, mostly elderly pensioners, gathered under red hammer-and-sickle flags near a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin on the edge of downtown, calling for the replacement of Russia's leadership.

Young Communist supporters
were also in attendance

Across the Moscow River, a much larger crowd organised by the main pro-Kremlin party United Russia marched down the city's main street in support of Putin - part of a major effort to counter the nationwide Communist protests, which had been announced weeks in advance.

Organisers claimed 40,000 people attended the rally, the Interfax news agency reported. Russia's Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, put the number at 30,000.

"These rallies show that the presidential administration is very much afraid of the tendency of Putin's rating falling," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank.

Communists and other opposition groups - which have been shut out of policymaking as the Kremlin has consolidated power and United Russia has gained an overwhelming majority in parliament - have seized on the public anger.

Huge demonstrations

In St Petersburg, where some of the largest protests against the benefits reform have been held since it took effect on 1 January, pro- and anti-Putin protests each appeared to attract about 5000 people on Saturday, though Interfax said only 2500 attended the pro-Putin rally.

State-run television focused on the pro-Putin rallies, with the Rossiya channel showing footage from several cities where it said those crowds were larger than the competing protests.

Social reforms have proven to
be deeply unpopular in Russia

With its close ties to the federal government and local authorities, United Russia has levers to draw demonstrators for rallies.

The rallies came after parliament deflated opposition momentum by rejecting a motion of no-confidence in Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's Cabinet on Thursday.

Only 112 deputies of the 450-seat State Duma backed the no-confidence motion, which needed a simple majority of 226 votes to pass in the lower house. But most members of United Russia, which has more than 300 seats, refrained from voting in an attempt to distance themselves from the benefits reform.

Scuffles broke out and at least one pensioner was beaten by police during the Moscow protest, and Interfax reported that a member of a leftist group called The Vanguard of the Red Youth said he was also beaten by law enforcement officers when the group tried to block a street.

Eleven people were arrested for disturbing the peace after firecrackers, snowballs and an egg were thrown at St Petersburg's top lawmaker while he addressed the pro-Putin rally there, Interfax reported.