Protesters keep up defiance of Belarus's Lukashenko

By Olena Horodetska

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 camped in icy winds and driving sleet on a central square in the capital Minsk to back a call for a re-run of a vote they say was rigged.

Though their numbers slumped to a few hundred in mid-afternoon, the protest swelled again to about 5,000 as people joined in at the end of the working day, witnesses said.

When night fell, Minsk's October Square remained plunged in darkness as authorities refused to turn on lighting. But music blared from sound systems rigged up by demonstrators and some protesters danced to keep their spirits high.

Units of riot police were in view in adjacent streets, but there was no move by the authorities to follow their usual practice by breaking up the demonstration.

Several hundred, mainly young, protesters planned a second night vigil, many gamely waving the red-and-white national flag banned by Lukashenko during a drive to reinstate Soviet symbols.

"Down with Lukashenko" read one banner. "We believe, we can win," said another.

Activists took turns sleeping in a couple of dozen tents and forming a human chain around them. Volunteers shuttled back and forth to the square with hot drinks and food.

Lukashenko, criticized by the opposition and the West for 12 years of 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.


Dwindling numbers of protesters during the day had suggested the rallies could peter out.

But Milinkevich galvanized his supporters 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 short-lived 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.

"The authorities have a plan to destroy this small city of freedom. We will not allow them to do it," he declared.

The protest had strong echoes of the highly-organized 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets in neighboring Ukraine. It has similarly set Russia and the United States at odds, with Moscow congratulating Lukashenko and Washington accusing him of intimidating the opposition.

But despite the resolve of the protesters there was little prospect of the Minsk demonstrations reaching the same scale.

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.

"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.

"I believe many people trust Lukashenko. Probably not as many as the 82 percent announced, but there are still many," said Tatyana, 34, a bank clerk, tugging on a blanket keep warm.

"Our main problem is that many people don't know the truth."

Lukashenko projected a business-as-usual image, signing a decree to increase state aid to farms, his press service said.

Court hearings against 108 opposition activists opened in Minsk, but proceedings were closed. Key opposition figures were sentenced to 10 to 15 days in prison, activists said.

(Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky)