Belarus: Protesters Hold Vigil Amid Continuing Crackdown

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Belarusian opposition supporters have been keeping a vigil on a central square of Minsk to support demands that results of the March 19 presidential polls be annulled. A few hundred protesters stood amid biting cold today as they await a larger rally scheduled for March 25. Meanwhile, reports say arrests, beatings, and other forms of harassment are continuing outside the square.

PRAGUE, March 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of Belarusian protesters spent a third freezing night on October Square, playing music, dancing, and listening to opposition leaders.

By dawn, their number had dwindled to an estimated 200. But the atmosphere was still cheerful.

About 30 small tents have been erected under the watchful eye of riot police and plainclothes security officers deployed near the square.

Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich spent the night in one of the tents before leaving the square in the early morning hours.

Harassment Outside Square

No violence was reported at the site of the protest, which EU ambassadors visited on March 21. However, reports claimed protesters and sympathizers were beaten and arrested in surrounding areas.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service quoted one demonstrator, Mikhal Audzejeu, as saying police assaulted young protesters at dawn as they were leaving the square and heading toward a nearby metro station. Audzejeu said he managed to escape and return to the square, where an ambulance provided him with medical assistance.

Belarus's Belapan independent news agency reported that police made an estimated 50 arrests overnight. The report could not be officially confirmed.

Some Western media reported that a KGB officer today accompanied journalists to the square, where he pointed out snipers positioned on buildings overlooking the square.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau has cited hygienic concerns as his reasoning for threatening to ban food deliveries to the makeshift encampment.

Opposition leaders say more than 100 people have been arrested since election night. They have vowed to gather large crowds of protesters on March 25, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic set up at the end of World War I.

Mass Rally Planned

Addressing demonstrators overnight, Milinkevich said the upcoming rally "will show the real strength of Belarus's democratic forces that are protesting the fraudulent results of the presidential election."

The Central Election Commission has announced that incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka won a landslide reelection with nearly 83 percent of the vote.

Milinkevich, who came in second with an official 6 percent, is demanding that the outcome of the vote be voided and that a new election be held.

Fears Of Violence

One student protester, who gave his name only as Yury, said demonstrators fear that police may attempt to evacuate October Square before March 25.

"The cops threatened us with [March] 24," Yury said. "They told us, 'You don't know yet what will happen on the 24th.' Most likely, something is going to happen on the 24th. I don't know what. We, in turn, told them about the [rally planned for] the 25th. But they told us, 'You won't live until the 25th.'"

Belapan on March 21 reported that some 15 people were handed down administrative sentences of up to 15 days in jail on charges of attending the unsanctioned opposition protest rally.

Among them are Tatsyana Khoma, a student who was recently expelled from university for attending a youth forum abroad, and Anatol Lyabedzka, the chairman of the United Civic Party and a close aide to Milinkevich.

Another opposition supporter, who identified herself only as Yuliya, said the trials bode ill for the future. However, she said she believes they will not affect the determination of the youths assembled on October Square.

"We have the impression that [police] may storm [the square]," Yuliya said. "They are already taking people, sentencing them to 10, 15 days in jail. Just because people want freedom, they jail them. But we will remain here and fight."

Opposition Feud

But not all opposition leaders seem as determined as Yuliya.

The campaign staff of Social-Democrat Party leader Alyaksandr Kazulin today issued a statement accusing Milinkevich of breaking a promise to urge demonstrators to leave October Square until the March 25 rally.

The statement said Milinkevich had given his consent to vacate the square, but later reneged on the agreement.

Belapan today quoted a spokesman for Milinkevich as confirming that such an agreement was reached, but that protesters rejected the proposal.

Kazulin has cited poor weather and increasing intimidation from authorities to justify his call to abandon the encampment until March 25. In his statement, he said Milinkevich will bear "full responsibility" in the event of a general police assault on the square.