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Police officers detain an opposition supporter during a rally in Vladivostok, Russia. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

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ARKHANGELSK, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Western criticism of how Russia had handled anti-government protesters at the weekend was a politically-motivated attempt to interfere in his country's domestic affairs.

Speaking at an Arctic forum in northern Russia, Putin, who is expected to seek a fourth presidential term next year, also said his political opponents were trying to channel public discontent about corruption for their own "mercenary" needs.

"We know well that this tool was used at the start of the so-called Arab Spring, what this led to, and what bloodshed happened in the region," Putin said, in his first comments on the weekend street protests.

Thousands of people took part in anti-corruption rallies across Russia on Sunday and dozens of them were arrested or fined.[ID:nL5N1H30FK] [ID:nL5N1H43L2]

The United States and the European Union called on the Russian authorities to free detainees.

Putin condemned their calls on Thursday.

"Such appeals to Russia are purely political aimed at applying pressure on the country's domestic political life," he said.

"Everybody should abide by the law and everyone who breaks the law should be punished in accordance with Russian legislation."

The authorities refused to grant protesters formal permission to hold their rallies in most cities meaning that the demonstrations were, in their eyes, illegal.

Opposition activists disagreed however and cited the Russian constitution which they said gives people the right to gather peacefully without the authorities' approval.

(Reporting by Oksana Kobzeva and Nastya Lyrchikova; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Vladimir Soldatkin/Andrew Osborn)

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