MOSCOW (AP) -- Performers from across Europe were to compete Saturday night in the Eurovision song contest, a musical bonanza that is one of the most watched annual television events on the continent.

But several hours before the show began, riot police attacked gay pride rallies in the Russian capital, setting back Moscow's efforts to use the event to showcase the nation's hospitality and prestige. Gay rights activists sought to use the international competition to draw attention to what they call widespread discrimination against homosexuals in Russia. No injuries were reported.

The winner of the competition is picked by a combination of telephone voting and official juries from national broadcasters in the 42 competing nations.

Twenty-four artists and bands were competing as finalists.

Norway's entry, an upbeat emotional ditty penned and performed by Belarusian-born Alexander Rybak, was strongly tipped to snatch the Eurovision crown from Russia, which won the competition last year.

Britain, which has traditionally fared well in the contest, has struggled in recent years. But a campaign of musical diplomacy by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the country's offering, may have boosted British chances and has won the country unlikely support from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Bookmakers also were giving highly favorable odds to Greece, which was pinning its hopes on an elaborately choreographed stage performance involving a giant flashing treadmill.

Israel made an appeal for peace and harmony with "There Must Be Another Way," sung in Arabic, Hebrew and English by Arab-Jewish duo Noa and Mira.

Russia — whose Dima Bilan won the contest last year, bringing this year's show to Moscow — was pinning its hopes on "Mamo," an overwrought ballad composed by a Georgian songwriter and partially performed in Ukrainian by a Ukrainian-born artist Anastasia Prikhodko.

Some contestants had tried to use the competition as a venue for settling international scores.

Two months ago, the pop group Stephane and 3G from Georgia vowed to perform "We Don't Wanna Put In," a frenzied disco song that took a rhythmic rapier thrust at Putin. The group pulled out when organizers warned that politically charged songs would not be permitted, including one referring to last year's Russia-Georgia war.

Georgia responded by organizing its own state-supported songfest this weekend, Alter/Vision, drawing groups from 10 countries, including Russia. Stephane and 3G were to perform at the festival in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and young Georgians sang the "Put In" lyrics on the streets as it got under way Friday evening.

Moscow authorities have worked hard to turn the Eurovision contest to display Russia's hospitality and prestige, splashing out 24 million euros ($32.5 million) on the show and a weeklong series of decadent parties.

But the climate of goodwill was shattered in the hours ahead of the competition, when riot police broke up several gay rights demonstrations in Moscow.

Eurovision enjoys considerable support from the gay community, and Russian activists hoped to take advantage of the event to draw international attention to what they describe as rampant homophobia in the country.

Police hauled away around 40 demonstrators, including Britain-based activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.

"Today's arrests go against the principles of Eurovision, which are about peace, harmony, cooperation and unity between all the peoples in Europe," Tatchell told The Associated Press after being released by police.

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Associated Press writer David Nowak contributed to this report.