Vladimir Putin has taken office as Russian president today for a historic third term in a Kremlin ceremony shadowed by bloody clashes between police and the protest movement against his rule.

Mr Putin officially takes over from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev after swearing in his oath to protect the rights of Russian citizens and defend the country's integrity.

However his return to the presidency has been controversial, with activists accusing him of lacking legitimacy after his 4 March election victory was marred by claims of fraud.

Opponents also say Mr Putin has sacrificing rights in the pursuit of stability during 12 years of domination over Russia.

The eve of today's ceremony saw the worst clashes yet between police and anti-Putin protesters, when a mass opposition demonstration descended into chaos and security forces wielded their batons to arrest hundreds of people.

Police said that 436 people were detained at yesterdya’s protest, including the anti-Putin leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov who now face the prospect of spending at least the next two weeks in jail.

The authorities said that 20 police were wounded by stones and glass thrown by the protesters, who in turn accused the authorities of responding with heavy hand-handed tactics to violently disperse the protest.

The Interfax news agency quoted medical sources as saying that 47 protestors had required medical treatment while opposition websites said that up to 650 demonstrators had been arrested.

The bitter clashes were in stark contrast to the winter's mass anti-Putin protests which smashed the taboo against big opposition rallies in Russia but also took place peacefully without any arrests.

Protest leaders bickered over their future strategy with supporters of the ultra-left wing Udaltsov calling for civil disobedience but liberals expressing disgust over the radical opposition's provocative behaviour.

In the lavish inauguration ceremony that aims to remind the world of post-Soviet Russia's status as a great global power, Mr Putin swore to "respect and protect the rights and freedoms of the people and citizens"

Mr Medvedev has served as president since 2008 as Mr Putin was constitutionally barred from serving more than two consecutive terms, having become head of state in 2000 following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Putin remained in full charge as he instead took the job of prime minister. Yet analysts say he now faces the unprecedented challenge of a six year term at a time when Russian society is changing at speed.

Mr Medvedev, meanwhile, is expected to take on Mr Putin's old job as prime minister but remain largely in the shadows after his presidency failed to deliver initial promises of political and economic modernisation.