MOSCOW - More than 1,300 people have been arrested at demonstrations across Russia against President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial mobilisation of civilians to fight in Ukraine, a police monitoring group said on Wednesday.
The OVD-Info monitoring group counted at least 1,332 people detained at rallies in 38 different cities across the country after Mr Putin's morning address to the nation.
The protests were the largest in Russia since demonstrations that broke out following the announcement of Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine in February.
AFP journalists in the centre of the Russian capital said at least 50 people were detained by police wearing anti-riot gear on a main shopping street.
In Russia's former imperial capital St Petersburg, AFP reporters saw police surround a small group of protesters and detain them, loading them onto a bus. Protesters were chanting "No mobilisation!"
"Everyone is scared. I am for peace and I don't want to have to shoot. But coming out now is very dangerous, otherwise there would be many more people," said protester Vasily Fedorov, a student wearing a pacifist symbol on his chest. "I came out to the rally planning to participate, but it looks like they've already arrested everyone. This regime has condemned itself and is destroying its youth," said Alexei, a 60-year-old resident who declined to give his last name.
"Why are you serving Putin, a man who's been in power for 20 years!" a young protester shouted at one policeman.
Ms Alina Skvortsova, 20, said she hoped Russians would soon understand the nature of the Kremlin's offensive in neighbouring Ukraine.
"As soon as they really understand, they will come out onto the street, despite the fear," she said.
The Interfax news agency quoted the Russian Interior Ministry as saying it had quashed attempts to "organise unauthorised gatherings".
All the demonstrations were stopped and those who committed "violations" were arrested and led away by police pending an investigation and prosecution, it added.
Some Russian men headed swiftly to the borders on Thursday after the mobilisation order, with traffic at frontier crossings with Finland and Georgia surging and prices for air tickets from Moscow rocketing. Social media groups popped up with advice on how to get out of Russia while one news site in Russian gave a list of "where to run away right now".
A truck driver who crossed the Russian-Kazakh border on Thursday said he saw unusually heavy traffic from the Russian side.
Traffic arriving at Finland's eastern border with Russia "intensified" overnight, the Finnish Border Guard said on Thursday, while adding that the situation was under control.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the other European Union countries that border Russian territory, began turning away Russian citizens from crossings at midnight on Monday, saying they should not travel while their country is at war.
The Baltic nations will offer no refuge to any Russians fleeing Moscow's mobilisation, their ministers said on Wednesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that reports of an exodus of draft-age men were exaggerated. When asked about reports that men detained at anti-war protests were being given draft papers, he said it was not against the law.
Some 10,000 volunteers have turned up to enlist for Russia's military campaign in Ukraine without waiting for call-up papers issued under a partial mobilisation, Russian news agencies reported, citing the Russian General Staff.
REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG