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31 in Russia held after gay rights demonstration

MOSCOW -- Police detained gay rights activists, among them European lawmakers, as they tried to present a letter to Moscow's mayor yesterday in a demonstration that also attracted a hostile crowd of people who punched and threw eggs at the activists.

The letter, signed by some 40 European lawmakers, appealed the city's ban on a march that would have taken place yesterday to mark the 14th anniversary of Russia decriminalizing homosexuality.

Police quickly grabbed about a dozen activists and forced them into a bus, including Russian gay rights movement leader Nikolai Alexeyev.

Police then hustled away others, including German Parliament member Volker Beck, as opponents threw eggs and shouted: "Moscow is not Sodom!"

Marco Cappato, a European Parliament deputy from Italy, was kicked by one opponent as he spoke to journalists. Cappato began shouting "Where are the police? Why don't you protect us?" and officers hauled him away as he struggled.

The gay rights activists appeared to number fewer than 100, while roughly that many police were present.

Cappato later told Italy's Sky TG24 news channel that he had been released. He said that when he saw that Ottavio Marzocchi, an official with the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, had come under attack, he began shouting and "within five seconds I was taken away by police in anti riot gear."

Thirty-one people were detained and most were later released, Moscow police spokesman Yevgeny Gildeyev said. He said two Italians were detained for jaywalking and a German was taken away by police to prevent him from being beaten.

But Beck, who was released, told the Associated Press that police beat him and the others and seized their passports. Beck also denied the group was holding a demonstration, insisting they were only trying to hand over the letter.

Alexeyev said he and two other activists expected to be held until today , Ekho Moskvy radio reported.

Cappato denied he had broken a traffic rule. "I was just trying to defend a friend from violent people because the police were not doing that," he said.

Interfax news agency quoted a Moscow city spokesman, Mikhail Solomentsev, as praising the "coo rdinated and polite actions of the police, who acted in strict accordance with the law."

Despite being decriminalized, homosexuality is widely despised in Russia. Many of the gay rights opponents yesterday carried icons or other insignia of the Russian Orthodox Church, and one man wore the garb of an Orthodox priest. A woman in the headscarf typical of devout Orthodox believers repeatedly threw water from a bottle at Peter Tatchell, a British human rights activist, as he tried to speak. A young man then punched Tatchell in the head and Tatchell was led away by police.

No gay rights opponents were seen taken away by police, though Gildeyev said a man was detained after attacking a Briton, presumably referring to Tatchell.

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