MOSCOW - Protesters chanting "Russia without Putin" began marching through Moscow on Saturday in a protest seen as a test of the opposition's ability to mount a sustained challenge to President Vladimir Putin.

Several thousands demonstrators began marching under cloudy skies from the central Pushkin Square along a route that will take them close to the Kremlin in what is intended to be the first big opposition rally for three months.

Some had banners declaring "Putin is a parasite". Others wore T-shirts demanding the release of three members of the Pussy Riot punk band who were jailed after singing a profanity-laced "punk prayer" in a church.

The demonstration will indicate whether the protest movement that began nine months ago, and has at times attracted tens of thousands of people to rallies, still has momentum four months after Putin began a six-year term as president.

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