By YURAS KARMANAU
The Associated Press
MINSK, Belarus -- Government security agents beat and detained an opposition presidential candidate on Thursday, two weeks before Belarus holds an election expected to return authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to power.
Hours later, several thousand opposition supporters massed for an unsanctioned rally in a square in downtown Minsk. A large contingent of riot police stood guard and pushed back the crowd, which chanted "Freedom."
"Victory will be ours," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich _ the main presidential challenger to Lukashenko _ told his supporters defiantly before the rally dispersed peacefully.
Alexander Kozulin, the opposition candidate who was beaten and detained after he tried to enter a conference chaired by Lukashenko, said he attempted to attend it because "I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship we live in."
He and three members of his campaign were beaten, and Kozulin was taken to a police station. Later in the evening, he was released.
Lukashenko has ruled his isolated former Soviet nation with an iron hand since 1994. Over the past dozen years has quashed dissent and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by his opponents and Western governments that have dubbed him Europe's last dictator.
The United States strongly condemned the beating and warned that the former Soviet republic would face consequences if elections scheduled this month are not free and fair.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David J. Kramer, who visited Minsk last week, would provide no details of what the United States might do except that Belarus officials would find "life more difficult and confined."
He said the United States was working closely with its European allies to coordinate any actions to be taken against Belarus.
The Vienna-based OSCE, which is deploying an election observer mission in Belarus, also expressed concern about Thursday's arrests.
Lukashenko and other officials allege the opposition is receiving aid from the West with the aim of provoking an uprising after the election, similar to mass demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan that helped drive longtime leaders out of power over the past two years.
Lukashenko told the conference in Minsk that the opposition leaders are "mercenary opponents of our society and our people."
The opposition "will be dismantled in a tough way after the elections," he said in a four-hour address to a conference, which was frequently interrupted by lengthy applause from delegates.
Kozulin's spokeswoman, Nina Shidlovskaya, said that one of the men who had beaten the candidate was the commander of a riot police unit; other assailants were in plainclothes.
Police fired warning shots, then beat and rounded up about 20 Kozulin supporters who gathered at the police station to demand his release. Kozulin's lawyer, Igor Rynkevich, who demanded access to his client, was also detained.
Kozulin, whose Social-Democratic Party had nominated him to be a delegate to the conference, would be charged with "hooliganism," the prosecutor's office said.
The head of the Vyasna human rights center, Ales Byalyatsky, said about 60 opposition members were rounded up on Thursday.
"The first shots have already been heard, a total 'cleanup' of the opposition has begun," he said.