Protesters stage protest vigil in Belarus

By Olena Horodetska

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko faced challenges on Tuesday to his re-election from both Western governments and opposition protesters who camped overnight in the capital to press their call for a new poll.

Lukashenko, in power for 12 years and criticized by the opposition and in the West for authoritarian Soviet-style rule, swept back into office on Monday with an official tally of 82.6 percent.

Nearest rival Alexander Milinkevich, with 6 percent, called the poll fraudulent, a view shared widely in the West. The result, never in doubt given Lukashenko's control over much of public life and media, put Washington and Moscow at odds.

Several hundred protesters defied warnings by Lukashenko's state security services and camped out in tents in Minsk's central October Square overnight in an action reminiscent of the highly organized 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine.

Though numbers dwindled to about 500 in the early hours, the action was still unprecedented for Belarus, where Lukashenko's state security service normally cracks down swiftly on public dissent.

Nobody was expecting the demonstration to swell into a people's power protest like that seen in Ukraine.

But Lukashenko, while not sending in police to break up the demonstration, was clearly watching for any signs the protest would gain momentum.

"We must stay here permanently. We must stay here until the victory," Milinkevich told protesters in the early morning.

"It is our square. It is our country," he said to chants of "Freedom" and "Long Live Belarus" from his supporters.

Milinkevich and other opposition leaders stayed for most of the night at the square with protesters. The opposition is demanding a new election in July and called a bigger rally in the evening.

Lukashenko, who vowed in the election campaign to "wring the necks" of those who threatened public order, said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup.

The 51-year-old former state farm director says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has befallen other former Soviet republics. Most analysts acknowledge he would have won the election easily without subjecting the opposition to pressure. US, RUSSIA AT ODDS

Lukashenko's predictable election victory set Washington and Moscow at variance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom the rise to power of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine highlighted dwindling influence in former Soviet areas, congratulated him.

The United States, which last year described Lukashenko as "Europe's last dictator," said the poll had been conducted in a "climate of fear" and backed a call for new elections.

Despite heavy snow, chilly wind and sub-zero temperatures, around 500 people remained in the square, trying to protect the tent city from police with a live chain. They sang folk songs and some danced to blaring music to keep warm.

"I am in a perfect mood," said Sasha, 19-year-old student. "I will be coming here until the victory. We are not afraid of anything," he said waving a white and red Belarussian national flag banned by Lukashenko.

Supporters brought sleeping bags, food, hot drinks and blankets to them. Some cars sounded their horns in solidarity as they drove past the square.

Police made no move to break up the demonstration or impede protesters at the square. But they tried to stop a slow flow of people by checking documents and searching bags. They also detained some activists after they left the central square.

The opposition said about a dozen activists, including independent Belarussian reporters, had been detained by police during two days of protests.

On Monday, up to 7,000 protesters gathered in the square, compared with 10,000 after polls closed on Sunday evening.