Belarus Opposition Leader Urges Supporters


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - A defiant opposition leader urged supporters camped in a freezing central square Tuesday night to keep up their daily demonstrations against authoritarian Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who was re-elected in voting widely denounced as a farce.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich also called for a large show of strength on Saturday.

``We will stay here until the 25th, and on the 25th we will gather here to fight for our future,'' Milinkevich told the crowd on the third day of protests of Sunday's election that gave Lukashenko five more years in power. ``Come here every day to speak of freedom.''

Speaking in the glow from TV cameras after lighting on Oktyabrskaya Square was shut off, Milinkevich said that ``the authorities want to destroy this small city of freedom'' - referring to a tent camp where dozens of demonstrators spent the night. ``We will not let them do it.''

Milinkevich had said earlier that he planned to urge demonstrators to end their unprecedented three-day protest later Tuesday and resume it on Saturday. But when he arrived at the square, he made no call for a tent camp to be removed and stressed protests should be kept up.

Halting the daily protests could have led to a loss of momentum, and removal of the tent camp could have been seen as ceding the square - both symbolically and physically - to the authorities.

Saturday is a key date for the opposition: the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the first, short-lived Belarusian republic in 1918, and a traditional day for Lukashenko's opponents to gather.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has become a pariah in the West for his relentless crackdown on opposition and independent media.

Milinkevich has called him an ``illegal, illegitimate president,'' describing his official vote tally as ``monstrously inflated.'' He called for a new vote.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the United States ``will continue to stand with the people of Belarus.''

Since the polls closed in the presidential election Sunday, crowds have been gathering every evening in the square, but have mostly dispersed after a few hours.

About 10,000 gathered Sunday night - the largest rally thus far. The demonstration was extraordinary for its size and for the noninterference by police, who usually move quickly and harshly to break up unauthorized gatherings.

On Monday, far fewer showed up and most of them dispersed. Some young protesters set up a dozen tents in the square and about 250 people remained overnight.

Police had harassed people entering the square but made no moves to crack down on the demonstrations in the former Soviet republic.

``What happened last night will be in history books,'' Milinkevich told protesters shortly after dawn Tuesday.

European Union ambassadors visited the tent camp to show support for opponents of a leader branded a dictator by the West.

International observers have said Sunday's election was neither free nor fair, and Europe's main human rights organization called it a ``farce.'' The United States has called for a new election.

Milinkevich, who also has demanded another election, said Lukashenko should be excluded from the new balloting.

``We are demanding a repeat election without the participation of Lukashenko. For us, this is very important. He does not have the constitutional right'' to run again, Milinkevich told The Associated Press in an interview at his apartment.

He referred to a 2004 referendum that approved changing the constitution to end term limits for the president. Official results said the referendum passed handily, but the opposition says the vote was manipulated.

The Belarusian opposition was trying to mimic techniques that worked for their southern neighbor, Ukraine, and eventually brought in a new government. But in Ukraine, the crowds were much larger - 100,000 or more jammed central Kiev for weeks in December 2004, forcing a rerun of a flawed presidential election.

Through midday Tuesday, police had taken no tough action against the Minsk demonstrations, although they detained several people - including Milinkevich's sons briefly, as well as two top opposition figures and the head of a leading anti-government newspaper.

Protesters had stood in a human chain around a dozen small tents set up in the square, locking arms to protect the tiny encampment. Others tried to bring in blankets, food and hot beverages but were often detained by police.

Demonstrators occasionally broke into singing ``Razom Nas Bahato'' (``Together We Are Many''), the emblematic song of Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

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