Protesters defy Lukashenko over Belarus poll

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters staged fresh demonstrations against Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election for a third day on Tuesday and their leader announced a weekend rally to press calls for a new poll.

In protests unprecedented in the tightly-controlled, ex-Soviet state, opposition demonstrators maintained an overnight vigil and camped in driving sleet on a central square to back a call for a re-run of a vote they say was rigged.

Though their numbers slumped to about 300 by mid-afternoon, many more people joined them at the end of the working day to boost their numbers to about 5,000, witnesses said.

As night fell, demonstrators found themselves in darkness as the authorities failed to turn on the lights around October Square. Witnesses said riot police had massed in adjacent streets in the evening, but there was no sign of any action.

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

Nearest rival Alexander Milinkevich, credited with 6 percent, called the poll fraudulent, a view shared widely in the West and backed by findings from international monitors.

Police, who in the past have quickly broken up anti-government demonstrations, held back from action against them -- apparently banking on the protest soon petering out in the freezing weather.

But Milinkevich galvanized protesters anew by telling them to keep their vigil at the square and urged them to gather for a huge rally on Saturday to mark the independence day of a shortlived Belarussian republic in 1918.

"We will come here every day until March 25 to speak about freedom. Come on March 25. Bring your friends and acquaintances. We will gather many people," he told them by loud hailer.


At least 500 protesters, most of them young people, rallied to Milinkevich's call for fresh elections and camped in tents on October Square overnight in an action reminiscent of the highly-organized 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine.

"I came here to support these young people. In previous years I was marching under the red flags and I think it was wrong. That's why I am here. I want my grandchildren to be proud of me," 66-year-old pensioner Pavel Rusetsky said.

A 34-year-old taxi driver, who would give only his first name, Dima, brought tea and blankets to those demonstrating despite the cold and sleet.

"Lukashenko has re-elected himself as always. These are courageous people and I want to help them," he said.

Lukashenko projected a business-as-usual image, signing a decree to increase state aid to the farming sector, according to his press service.

Court hearings against some opposition activists detained earlier opened in Minsk. Violators of laws on public order can face prison terms of up to 15 days.

Opposition and human rights activists said police had detained more than 108 protesters, including key opposition figures and journalists, since the start of protests.

Lukashenko, 51, said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup.

The former state farm director says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has beset other ex- Soviet states. Most analysts say he would have won re-election easily even without subjecting the opposition to pressure.

The election has set Washington and Moscow at odds.

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.