Police storm opposition tent camp in Belarusian capital

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital early Friday morning, detaining hundreds of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night in a central square to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's victory in a disputed election.

Half a dozen large police trucks and around 100 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m. (2300 GMT Thursday). The police stood around for a few minutes and then barged into the tent camp filled with protesters.

They first wrestled about 50 resisting demonstrators into the trucks. The rest of the 200-300 demonstrators then filed into the trucks quietly, seeing that the end had come for the days-long protest that was unprecedented in the authoritarian ex-Soviet state.

Journalists were kept about 20 meters (22 yards) away behind police lines, and it was unclear whether police gave protesters a chance to disperse on their own before they were arrested and bundled into the trucks.

The police had long truncheons, but were not seen beating demonstrators, as they had done often when breaking up smaller opposition rallies in past years. One local journalist said she saw police kick a few demonstrators who fell as they were being hustled into the truck.

By the end of the 10-15 minute operation, all of the protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains of their encampment - about 20 backpacker-type tents, blankets, thermoses, refuse and several of the historic red-and-white flags that the demonstrators had waved, signifying freedom.

Protester Nikolai Ilyin, a member of the opposition youth movement, said the demonstrators - many in their socks, because they had been sleeping - were taken to a Minsk jail to be registered.

"Many people were made to stand in stockinged feet in the snow for two hours," said Ilyin, 21. "We were made to stand against a wall with our hands up, and those who would turn their heads or say something were punched in their kidneys." Ilyin said he fainted during the ordeal and was hospitalized, but then fled the hospital.

City workers soon began throwing the remains of the camp into dump trucks, aided by two bulldozers scooping up debris, which was quickly cleared from the square. A stray dog wandered in during the operation and scrounged for food in what was left of the camp.

The United States, a persistently harsh critic of Lukashenko, was quick to denounce the police raid.

"As we have said before, we condemn all acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country of their right to peacefully express their views," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said.

Police had been detaining opposition supporters and keeping would-be protesters away from the square since Monday night, when demonstrators set up the first tents. The protests began with a rally of more than 10,000 people on Sunday, the day of the election, and about 5,000 came to a second protest on Monday, when a core group decided to make the protests around-the-clock.

A top police official earlier in the week had said there was no intention to disperse the demonstration, and it was not immediately clear what prompted the decision for the pre-dawn storming. An annual television awards ceremony was to be held Friday evening at the hulking Palace of the Republic, which borders the square, and the sight of the scruffy tent camp near the gala would have been an embarrassment to the government.

The raid left in doubt the prospects for the opposition forces who had rallied behind presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich. He has called for a new vote without the participation of Lukashenko, whose election he contends was unconstitutional because he was allowed to run for a third term after an allegedly fraudulent referendum in 2004 abolished term limits.

"The authorities are destroying freedom, truth and justice. There was only enough democracy for three days and this shows the essence of the regime that has been established in Belarus," Milinkevich told The Associated Press after the storming. He had warned Thursday that increased persecution would only strengthen protests against the authoritarian government.

"The people on the square were courageous," Milinkevich said, speaking while on his way to the jail. "They got up off their knees and together with them all of Belarus stood up."

Despite that, the number of protesters had never risen to the level that was likely to force change, as happened in post-election protests in the ex-Soviet countries of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan where opposition leaders eventually came to power.

Milinkevich had said Thursday that he planned to announce "the long-term plans of the opposition" at what was intended to be a major demonstration on Saturday, the anniversary of Belarus' first independence declaration in 1918 and a traditional rallying day for the opposition.

He had been expected to call for an end to the protest encampment, and speculation was high that he would undertake a door-to-door opposition petition drive in the country of 10 million. He told AP early Friday that he would continue to call for a rally on Saturday.

The Central Election Commission released final election results Thursday saying Lukashenko received 83 percent of the vote and Milinkevich just 6.1 percent.

The commission chief, Lidiya Yermoshina, said the inauguration would take place March 31, but its secretary Nikolai Lozovik said that date was tentative and that the ceremony would probably be held later.

Lukashenko is genuinely popular with many Belarusians who credit him with providing economic and political stability. Milinkevich is calling for a new vote, however, saying Lukashenko's official tally was inflated.

A top trans-Atlantic democracy and security body said Thursday it had information about more than 200 detentions in the three days following the election, and called on the authorities to release everyone detained in connection with the peaceful protest.

"The Belarusian authorities must immediately put an end to the persecution of their opponents," the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Karel de Gucht, said in a statement.

Also Thursday, the Foreign Ministry lashed out a repeated U.S. criticism of the elections.

"The people of Belarus have made their choice, and it's absolutely irrelevant here whether the United States likes this choice or not," ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said in a statement.

Lukashenko claims the opposition is supported by Western forces seeking to bring him down.

Milinkevich said one of those detained Friday was a former Polish ambassador to Belarus, Marjusz Maszkewicz. At the jail, Polish Consul Krzysztof Swiderek said there were Polish citizens being held but that authorities would not let him in or give him any information.

On Thursday, Milinkevich said assailants had attacked and seriously injured a top aide after state television broadcast what it claimed was a recorded conversation in which the aide received advice from a Polish NGO, the Batory Foundation, on protest strategies.