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A gay rights protester is taken away by police officers at the start of Saturday's rally near Moscow State University. ((Roustem Adagamov/Associated Press))

Police in Moscow have broken up a gay pride rally that was banned by city authorities.

About 30 activists gathered Saturday morning near a university in southwestern Moscow to denounce what they say is discrimination against gays and lesbians in Russia.

After one minute, as demonstrators unfurled banners calling for gay rights, police charged into the group, grabbed about 20 people and dragged them into police cars and vans.

Among those detained were British activist Peter Tatchell and American activist Andy Thayer of Chicago, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.

Thayer said Russia's gays and lesbians are engaged in a fight "for the soul of Russian democracy."

"If … the right to assemble is taken away from lesbian and gay people here in Russia, then other Russians have to fear for their own freedom," Thayer said shortly before he was hauled away.

Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has described homosexuality as "satanic."

Mikhail Nalimov, leader of the United Orthodox Christian Youth, said his group would not tolerate any gay pride rallies in Russia.

"The aim of the gay movement is to destabilize the country and society and we will not let that happen," he said in a BBC interview earlier in the week.