Belarus opposition roars defiance

Caught in a sudden snow storm, the biggest opposition demonstration in Belarus for several years vanished, leaving only the hidden voices of 10,000 people roaring "Freedom!"

The rally held in the capital Minsk yesterday to protest the landslide re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko was not for the faint-hearted.

Aside from the slush lying thick on Oktyabrskaya Square and occasional blizzard, protesters had to weigh a series of chilling threats.

Lukashenko promised to "break the neck" of any unrest, the KGB security service told them they could be executed, and a mysterious, anonymous mass text message to mobile phones warned of "bloodshed".

Yet they came in their thousands - everyone from two bearded Orthodox priests to teenagers with headbands reading "Belarus in Europe!"

"Scared? What's there to be scared of? I spent nine months at the front in World War II," 79-year-old Vladimir Petrovich said, a fur hat pulled down around his ears. "The scared ones stayed away."

The crowd's hero, opposition presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich, stood on the steps of the neo-classical, Soviet-era Palace of Trade Unions, waving a bunch of pink and red carnations.

"We have overcome fear," the mild-mannered physicist cried over a shaky sound system, his voice hoarse, face red with cold and his blue overcoat soaked from snow. "We will win. Freedom!"

Dozens of Belarus's traditional red and white striped flags, replaced under Lukashenko by a more Soviet-looking red and green banner, flew over the crowd. Several European Union flags cropped up, recalling the opposition's hopes of support from the West.

But a current of nervousness ran under the carnival atmosphere as the crowd braced for what many thought would be the inevitable police assault.

"Look, here they come," one man said to a companion on the steps of the Palace of Trade Unions, pointing fearfully to a distant column of people moving into the square with what might have been truncheons.

But when the snow cleared, the column turned out to be a contingent of pro-opposition churchgoers - led by the two bearded priests, their weapons in fact icons and a silver cross.

The fact police did not intervene might have had something to do with the dozens, perhaps hundreds of foreign journalists on Oktyabrskaya Square. The handful of officers visible went out of their way to be polite.

But large numbers of riot police and interior ministry troops waited behind the scenes. At least 20 busloads of troops could be seen in one side street alone.

"They're being nice now, but you'll see: if they get the order they'll bury us," a young man said.

After an election campaign that seemed designed to keep opponents to Lukashenko out of the public eye, opposition leaders were enjoying their moment of glory.

"A revolution has taken place, a revolution within your consciousness," another opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin, shouted.

But Milinkevich and others will have their work cut out in trying to build momentum, starting with a follow-up rally later today.

Most analysts believe that crowds need be far bigger to exert real pressure on Lukashenko and make police think twice about staging an assault.

Alyena, a recent graduate of Belarus's state university, could not hide her disappointment, predicting that protests would gradually die out the way they did the last time Lukashenko was elected five years ago.

"People don't have any faith" in the demonstrations continuing, she said. "It's all so nasty and disgusting. I hate our politics."