Protesters defy Belarus authorities for third day of rallies against election

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Temperatures plunged. Then it began snowing. But when dawn broke Tuesday in Belarus, they were still there - a few hundred determined demonstrators huddled around a dozen small tents on Minsk's central square.

The protesters are trying to mimic techniques that worked in neighbouring Ukraine, where crowds of 100,000 or more jammed the centre of the capital for weeks in December 2004, forcing a rerun of a flawed presidential election.

But their diminishing numbers suggested the opposition was losing momentum in its drive to overturn President Alexander Lukashenko's overwhelming victory on Sunday, despite support from the United States and the European Union.

International observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards, and Europe's main human rights organization denounced it as a farce. Washington called for a new election.

On Sunday night an estimated 10,000 people had poured into Oktyabrskaya Square to register their outrage - a demonstration extraordinary for its size and for the restraint shown by police. The former Soviet republic is a tightly controlled country where police have cracked down swiftly on unsanctioned opposition gatherings.

Leaders called on them to return to the square Monday evening, but only about 5,000 heeded the call. By midnight their numbers had fallen to a few hundred.

"What happened last night will be in history books," the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, told the shivering protesters early Tuesday.

"We are here, and we have begun the true struggle for freedom, truth and justice," he said, urging supporters to stick it out.

During the night the protesters formed a human chain around a dozen small tents they set up in the square, locking arms to protect the tiny encampment. Others tried to bring in blankets, food and hot beverages to help them endure their vigil in freezing temperatures but were often detained by police.

"I believe that the repression will not stop us," said Olena Savina, 21, a journalism student who said police detained her for about an hour and took away the bread, sausages and sleeping mats she was bringing to the square. "I believe that there will be more and more of us."

Milinkevich has called Lukashenko an "illegal, illegitimate president," describing his official vote tally as "monstrously inflated." Backing his appeal for a new vote, the United States hinted it might impose travel restrictions on Belarusian leaders.

"The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, congratulated Lukashenko and said the results would help strengthen the alliance of the two ex-Soviet countries.

Milinkevich said two top opposition figures, United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko and his deputy, Alexander Dobrovolsky, were detained early Tuesday.

Andrei Denko, head of a leading opposition newspaper called Nasha Niva, was detained by police after he got off a bus by the square Tuesday morning.

Three Georgian citizens, including a diplomat, were detained late Monday in Belarus and were likely to be deported, Georgian legislator Givi Targamadze said in Tbilisi.

Belarusian authorities claimed before the vote that Georgians including Targamadze were involved in an alleged election-day terror plot aimed at overthrowing the government - accusations widely dismissed as scare tactics.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry said it could not immediately confirm the detentions.