Protests Continue Over Belarus Elections


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - A police commander said Wednesday that security forces would not move against the small, ``pathetic'' crowd camped in central Minsk that is protesting the re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Warmer weather raised the spirits of demonstrators, numbering about 300, who have been staging daily rallies on freezing Oktyabyrskaya Square since Sunday, alleging the election was fradulent and calling for new balloting without Lukashenko.

Opposition supporters said authorities have arrested more than 100 people since Sunday's election, but police have not moved against the protesters on the square.

Riot police regiment commander Yury Podobed told reporters the rally would not be suppressed, the Interfax news agency reported. Podobed described the demonstrators as being between 15 and 27 years old and numbering no more than 120.

``I suggest that you climb to the roof of the Republic Palace to take a look at this pathetic scene,'' Interfax quoted him as saying.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has urged demonstrators to keep up the daily vigil until a major show of strength Saturday.

``I'm glad it's warm, that will help us stay here,'' said Viktor Donich, a 25-year-old computer programmer, part of a human chain around about 15 small tents set up to provide the protesters a bit of shelter. ``We will stay here until we win.''

The prospects of achieving a huge crowd that could force that victory seemed slim. The rallies attract 5,000-7,000 people at night, but dwindle by about 1 a.m., when the last city buses make their runs.

Nor is there a sense that support is growing. Cars passing the election-night rally - the biggest at about 10,000 people - blew horns in solidarity. At midday Wednesday there wasn't a honk to be heard.

Milinkevich stood in virtual darkness on Tuesday night as he urged some 700 demonstrators to remain strong and return for a weekend rally. Demonstrators bounced to music - and against the cold - and chanted ``Mi-lin-ke-vich! and ``Long Live Belarus!

``Come here every day to speak of freedom,'' Milinkevich said.

Among those detained Tuesday were two senior opposition figures, United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko and his deputy, Alexander Dobrovolsky. They were sentenced to 15 and 10 days in jail, respectively, for participation in an unsanctioned protest. The head of a leading opposition newspaper also was detained near the square Tuesday.

Showing bruises on his face and chest, protester Mikhail Avdeyev said three riot police beat him up early Wednesday when he left the tent camp to buy cigarettes. He had been carrying the red-and-white national flag that Lukashenko scrapped in favor of a Soviet-style version.

``They beat me up, but I am still standing here for Belarus,'' he said.

According to the official vote count, Lukashenko, a former collective farm director who has been in power for 12 years, won with nearly 83 percent. Popular among many Belarusians for providing economic and political stability, his victory had been expected.

But Milinkevich, who electoral officials said received 6 percent, called the incumbent's tally ``monstrously inflated.'' In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, he said a new election should be held, with Lukashenko barred from running.

Milinkevich, 58, waded into the crowd around the tents with his wife early Wednesday, shaking hands and talking with protesters about their determination to stay.

Addressing supporters in a coat and scarf of the opposition's blue color, he acknowledged applause with his arms raised high but his head slightly bowed with humility.

His push for a new vote is supported by the United States - which calls Lukashenko a tyrant and along with the EU is mulling sanctions. Lukashenko, however, is determined to stay in power.

A major test could come with the demonstration on Saturday, which is also the anniversary of the declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian republic in 1918.

``We will stay here until the 25th, and on the 25th we will gather here to fight for our future,'' Milinkevich said Tuesday.