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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Gather in St Pete to Back NTV

ST. PETERSBURG — Thousands of supporters of the independent NTV television channel massed in Russia's second city on Sunday, backing what the station's journalists call a fight against the Kremlin to save free media.

Local police said some 4,000 people thronged Troitskaya Square, opposite the Winter Palace, waving placards and Russian flags, a day after a Moscow rally to support NTV's stand against last week's boardroom coup by state-dominated gas giant Gazprom.

On April 3, Gazprom replaced the board at NTV, Russia's only independent nationwide television network -- the most influential source of information outside Kremlin control.

It ousted founder Vladimir Gusinsky and replaced managing director Yevgeny Kiselyov with an American banker.

The following day, U.S. media magnate Ted Turner, founder of the CNN global news operation, announced he had reached an agreement to buy a stake in the network from Gusinsky, saying he hoped to ensure the station's continued independence. Talks continued over the weekend.

In St Petersburg, people held posters declaring "No TV without NTV!" and "We won't give NTV to Putin!" denouncing what the station's reporters say is President Vladimir Putin's leading role in a crackdown on independent media.

Close to the cruiser Aurora, whose salvo marked the start of the Bolsheviks' October 1917 revolution, liberal politicians mounted a modified truck to address the crowd.

"What they are doing to NTV is (the start of) the road to repression," said parliamentary deputy Sergei Popov. "But we will not go down that road," he told the cheering crowd.

The only sign of ill temper in the crowd came when police closed a metro station close to the rally, saying the move was necessary to guarantee public safety.

"For us, it is important that NTV is not just an information provider but expresses our way of thinking, and in this way it has become our political leader," said politician Igor Artemyev, from the Yabloko party, as the crowd cried "Freedom! Freedom!"

The protest came a day after more than 10,000 people gathered outside NTV's Moscow studio to back its journalists' vow not to accept the new management installed by Gazprom.

But two key resignations on Saturday showed signs of dissent in the station's ranks.

Top presenter Leonid Parfyonov said he could not back the tactics of the station's managing director and most prominent broadcaster Yevgeny Kiselyov, and opposed the absence of newscaster Tatyana Mitkova from a committee to talk to Gazprom.

Mitkova also resigned on Saturday, but the departures did little to dampen the mood in St Petersburg.

"Information -- Yes! Propaganda -- No!" and "Let's buy Gazprom's shares!" urged signs painted the green of NTV's logo.

Gazprom insists it wants only to recoup debts racked up by NTV parent company Media Most, owned by former theatre director turned tycoon Gusinsky.

The company says it has no major quarrel with NTV's reporters but only with Gusinsky, who is in Spain fighting extradition to Russia on fraud charges.

Turner said he would only be able to save NTV's independence if he sealed a deal to buy shares from Gazprom as well. The energy firm said on Saturday talks were at a preliminary stage.

Industry sources familiar with the talks said Turner's camp wanted a deal with Gazprom as soon as possible, with an eye to the U.S. magnate clinching about 30 percent of the group.