Belarus Opposition Leader Urges Solidarity


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- The leader of the Belarusian opposition urged solidarity Wednesday in the face of a growing crackdown on government critics protesting the disputed re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

While police have not moved to disperse protesters, they have sought to lower the numbers with a campaign of arrests and harassment similar to the conduct Western nations say made the election wildly unfair.

"We must defend one another," Alexander Milinkevich told demonstrators gathered on a freezing downtown square to push for a new vote without Lukashenko, whose 12-year-rule has been denounced in the West as Europe's last dictatorship.

"The state machine is mighty, and it is trying to destroy us," he told a crowd of about 4,000 in Oktyabrskaya Square, where rallies every evening since Sunday's election have swollen the ranks of a core of several hundred protesters maintaining a round-the-clock vigil at a tent camp.

The human rights center Vyasna said 150 people have been detained in connection with the protests. Some have been released, but others were tried and sentenced - usually to a week or two behind bars, the center said.

Andrei Dynko, the editor of an independent newspaper who was detained Tuesday on the way to the square, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 days in jail for swearing. Vadim Alexandrovich, editor of the paper Belarus i Rynok, received the same sentence on the same charge.

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.

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

Milinkevich said the authorities were violating the law.

"They have organized large-scale repression," Milinkevich said. "In these conditions, we are trying to do everything we can to achieve the truth."

He said he was particularly concerned that people are being fired from their jobs or expelled from universities for criticizing the government, as occurred with opposition supporters during the campaign.

The persistent protest is unprecedented in this tightly controlled former Soviet nation, where Lukashenko has been silencing dissent since his first election in 1994.

Gearing up for a major test of strength, Milinkevich emphasized his call for protesters to come out in force Saturday, the anniversary of the declaration of the first, short-lived independent Belarusian republic in 1918.

The prospects for change are clouded. The nightly rallies attract 2,000 to 7,000 people - fewer than the 10,000 who came out on election night - and dwindle as night deepens.

Warmer weather Wednesday raised spirits at the encampment after days of biting winds and intermittent snow. But harassment and intimidation by authorities took their toll.

In late afternoon, four large medical vehicles appeared on the square and a water truck with hoses was parked close by, raising anxiety among the group.

According to the official count, Lukashenko won a new five-year term with nearly 83 percent of the vote. Milinkevich, who electoral officials said received 6 percent, called the incumbent's tally "monstrously inflated." On Tuesday, he said a new election should be held, with Lukashenko barred from running.

Western governments and organizations have denounced the election as undemocratic. The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday called the elections "open and democratic."

Lukashenko is genuinely popular with many Belarusians who credit him with providing economic and political stability. He and the state-run media have portrayed the protesters as a small group of deceived young people whose leaders are in the pay of Western governments seeking to control Belarus.