MOSCOW (AP) -- Riot police broke up several gay rights demonstrations in Moscow on Saturday, hauling away scores of protesters hours before the capital hosted a major international pop music competition.
No injuries were reported, but the detentions could damage Russia's reputation on gay rights and its image as a modern nation, as the country tries to play gracious host during an event being televised around the world.
City officials had warned they would not tolerate marches or rallies supporting the rights of gays and lesbians. Activists had targeted Moscow, which was holding the finals of the Eurovision song contest, to press their claims that Russia officially sanctions homophobia.
Police seized gay rights advocates as well as some members of religious and nationalist groups that staged counter-demonstratio ns. They also took away gay rights activists for talking to reporters, and ripped the bra and shirt off one female protester.
Moscow police spokesman Anatoly Listovetsky said 40 people were detained, but media reports said up to 80 had been seized. None of the protests in central Moscow took place near the capital's Olimpiysky Sports Complex, where the Eurovision concert being held Saturday night.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has drawn international criticism by describing homosexuality as "satanic" and seeking to justify official discrimination against gay people in Russia by claiming they help spread the AIDS virus. Luzhkov has banned gay pride rallies in recent years, and attempted marches by gay activists have typically ended in detentions and attacks by nationalist groups.
Among those detained Saturday were British activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.
Tatchell and most of the others were detained during a hastily organized protest near Moscow State University in southwest Moscow, where about 30 protesters shouted "Homophobia is a disgrace of this country!" and "We are demanding equal rights!"
"This shows the Russian people are not free!" Tatchell yelled as he was being dragged to a police car. He was released a short time later.
"The arrests were done in a very violent, aggressive manner," Tatchell told The Associated Press after his release. "We believe the reaction of the Moscow police was totally unjustified."
Tatchell said Russian gay rights leaders had appealed to Eurovision contestants to denounce the police crackdown from the stage at tonight's competition. The live contest, which pits finalists from 24 different nations against each other, has drawn up to 100 million television viewers previously and is Europe's most prestigious pop song competition.
"Today's arrests go against the principles of Eurovision, which are about peace, harmony, cooperation and unity between all the peoples in Europe," he said.
Thayer was hustled off by police as he spoke with reporters.
"If ... the right to assemble is taken away from lesbian and gay people here in Russia, then other Russians have to fear for their own freedom," Thayer said, just before police burst through a ring of journalists to take him away.
Police ripped the shirt and bra off one female protester, who identified herself as Ksenia Prilebskaya, and roughly pushed her into a police bus. Her glasses fell and she shrieked in apparent pain.
City authorities had barred Saturday's rally, saying it was morally wrong.
"(Gay pride events) not only destroy moral foundations of our society, but also purposefully provoke disturbances that will threaten the lives and safety of Moscow residents and guests," City Hall spokesman Sergei Tsoi was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying Saturday.
At one rally a short walk from the Kremlin, about 50 demonstrators from nationalist and Orthodox Christian organizations denounced homosexuality. One man was detained when he alleged officials in the Kremlin were gay.
A half-dozen anti-gay rights demonstrators were also seized by police during a demonstration in Moscow's central Pushkin Square.
Decades of official persecution of Russian gays ended in 1993 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but opposition to gay rights remains widespread.
There are no official estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms.
Gay activists several gay male couples have attempted to wed since the mid-1990s, but officials rejected those efforts. Last week two homosexual women were denied their application for a marriage license.
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard contributed to this report.
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