GROZNY, Russia - Hundreds of thousands of people rallied Monday at a state-sponsored protest in Russia's Muslim North Caucasus province of Chechnya against the publication of Prophet Mohammed cartoons in the wake of Islamist attacks in France.
An AFP journalist at the event put the attendance figure at several hundred thousand, while Russia's interior ministry said over 800,000 people had flooded into central Grozny for the demonstration.
"This is a protest against those who support the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed," Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist since being installed by President Vladimir Putin a decade ago, told the rally.
Kadyrov has turned Chechnya, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed in two Kremlin wars to crush a separatist movement, into a showcase for loyalty to Putin.
The martial arts fan attacked the French government for backing Charlie Hebdo magazine's right to run a Mohammed cartoon on its front cover days after two Islamist gunmen - saying they were avenging the publication of previous Mohammed caricatures - massacred 12 people at its office in Paris.
"We say firmly that we will never allow anyone to go unpunished for insulting the name of the Prophet and our religion," Kadyrov said.
Demonstrators chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) and released balloons into the sky at the highly-choreographed event, as speakers harangued Western governments' argument that printing caricatures of Islam's prophet is a matter of free speech.
Authorities in Chechnya, which has a total population of around 1.25 million, said they had expected some 500,000 people to attend the rally and appealed for believers to come from around the North Caucasus region.
Live footage on Russian state television showed demonstrators filling the main square in Grozny, which only has a population of around 250,000.
Condemned for widespread human rights abuses, Kadyrov has helped Putin battle an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus and regularly stages large rallies in support of the Kremlin. Human rights activists say crowds are often boosted by large numbers of students and workers ordered to attend by state-run institutions and managers.
The Grozny rally was the latest of a string of protests to take place in the Muslim world, which regards depiction of the prophet as offensive.
On Saturday, around 15,000 people rallied in Chechnya's neighbouring province of Ingushetia, which is also almost entirely Muslim and under tight control of the Russian security services.
The Paris killings also sparked an outpouring of international support for the right to free speech, with many newspapers and magazines around the world reprinting Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
Russia's media watchdog on Friday warned publications that printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was against the country's law and ethical norms.
Media and communications ombudsman Roskomnadzor said that publishing the caricatures could be qualified as "inciting ethnic and religious hatred" and punished under anti-extremism laws.
Although Russia's leadership extended its condolences to France, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated in a unity march held in Paris following the attacks, pro-Kremlin commentators and Muslims accused the cartoonists of provoking the attack.