Belarus breaks up opposition protests

By Reuers Fri Mar 24 2006 7:42 am

Belarussian police on Friday broke up days of opposition protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election, detaining about 200 demonstrators in an early hours swoop in central Minsk.

The protests, unprecedented in the tightly controlled former Soviet state and posing a challenge to Lukashenko, began on Sunday to press charges by opposition leaders that last weekend's elections were rigged.

"The authorities ... only know the language of force," main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told reporters, his voice breaking. The opposition, due to hold an emergency meeting at 1000 British time, vowed a planned rally on Saturday would go ahead.

The United States, which has branded Lukashenko as Europe's last dictator after his 12 years of Soviet-style rule, said it was disturbed by the police action.

Dozens of police wearing riot helmets and carrying batons surrounded the protesters in their makeshift tent camp in the capital's October Square, loaded them on to trucks and drove them to a pre-trial detention centre.

About 10 of the protesters were forcibly removed from the square but the rest went to the trucks without resisting.

Throughout the operation, the police officer in command told his men through a loudhailer not to use excessive force.

The demonstrators, who had protested round the clock despite sub-zero temperatures at night, had rejected police calls to leave the square.


Lukashenko won Sunday's elections with an official vote tally of 83 percent. Milinkevich came second with 6 percent.

Despite becoming a pariah in the West, Lukashenko is genuinely popular among the 10 million Belarussians for having ensured relative political and economic stability.

The election result has set the United States and other Western countries at odds with Russia. Washington, echoing the findings of international poll monitors, has accused Lukashenko of intimidating opponents while Moscow has congratulated him.

"We are disturbed by the break-up of demonstrations and the detention of protestors in Belarus," U. S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said in a statement in Washington.

"As we have said before, we condemn all acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country their right to peacefully express their views."

Belarussian officials have dismissed complaints over the conduct of the elections and endorsed the results.

The protests had echoes of the 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets in neighbouring Ukraine. But though the protests sometimes swelled to thousands, there was no sign of it reaching the same scale.

Lukashenko, 51, said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup in Belarus, which has a population of about 10 million and borders European Union members Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.

Russia is to the east and is Belarus's main trading partner.

Lukashenko, a former state farm director, says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has beset other former Soviet states.

Belarus, or "White Russia", became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but a push to revive the Belarussian language and culture was crushed by Lukashenko. He reinstated many Soviet-era symbols, including a flag.