ASTRAKHAN, Russia  - Thousands of government supporters rallied in a southern Russian city on Saturday ahead of an opposition protest against allegedly rigged elections that prompted the losing candidate to go on hunger strike.

Over 3,000 people waved Russian flags and shouted slogans in support of incumbent mayor and ruling party supporter Mikhail Stolyarov whose victory in local elections in March has been denounced by the opposition as fraudulent, an AFP correspondent said.

Losing candidate Oleg Shein from the opposition A Just Russia party has been on hunger strike since March 16 in protest at the results and the issue has become a rallying cause for the opposition to president-elect Vladimir Putin.

Dozens of opposition activists have travelled to Astrakhan from Moscow for the weekend and their numbers now include well-known figures including the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the television host Ksenia Sobchak.

The opposition were planning to hold their own rally at 1300 GMT in the same place as the pro-Stolyarov meeting, a square in the city centre around a statue of the Stalin-era politician Sergei Kirov.

But as soon as the pro-government meeting dispersed, local police fenced off the square and prevented anyone from entering, including journalists, the correspondent said.

Shein’s supporters were now meeting at his offices to decide their next move.

The Astrakhan controversy has become the main dispute between the authorities and the opposition after Putin’s crushing victory in March 4 presidential elections took some momentum out of the nascent protest movement against his rule.

Shein — whose hunger strike has been joined by over a dozen supporters — last week briefly took in juice but then went back to a water-only regime after showing little faith in official promises to investigate his allegations. According to the official results, Shein only took 30 percent of votes against his opponent’s 60 percent. He declared last week he was “ready” to die and would only call off his hunger strike in case of “a new honest and clean election”.