Lukashenko ends Belarus protests

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko sent in riot police on Friday to end days of opposition street protests against his re-election, drawing condemnation from the West, but winning sympathy from Russia.

Police wearing riot helmets and carrying batons swooped in the early hours on around 200 demonstrators camped out in Minsk's October Square and drove them away in trucks to a pre-trial detention centre.

The demonstrators, led by the main opposition party that is planning a mass rally on Saturday, had been pressing for a re-run of Sunday's polls which handed Lukashenko five more years in power. The opposition says the poll was blatantly rigged.

"The authorities ... only know the language of force," main opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has spearheaded the peaceful resistance, told reporters, his voice breaking.

The opposition called an emergency meeting and vowed to proceed with Saturday's big show of protest. Milinkevich, not among those detained, was also planning a news conference.

The action drew quick condemnation from the West with the U.S. State Department saying it was disturbed by the news.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the European Union presidency, said events had confirmed the EU's "negative assessment" of Belarus. Plassnik said the EU had decided to take "restrictive measures" against those linked to the vote, including Lukashenko.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which denounced Lukashenko's re-election as flawed.

But Russia, Lukashenko's big backer on the world stage, accused the OSCE of playing an "inflammatory role" in Belarus.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the police action as restrained. "I would not call what I saw on television a forced dispersal of people or say that there was a use of force," he said, according to Interfax news agency.

"I don't think that the protesters asked for permission to have such a meeting in accordance with the law."

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has been branded Europe's last dictator by the United States and is shunned by Western governments because of his Soviet-style policies at home.

Though President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin is not comfortable with Lukashenko's style, it wants to protect its sphere of influence in the old Soviet Union, eroded by revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia that brought pre-Western leaders to power.

The five days of protests, in which numbers have ranged from 200 to several thousand, were unusual in that police in tightly-controlled Belarus usually snuff out dissent quickly.


In the early morning operation, dozens of police surrounded the protesters in the makeshift tent camp and told them to disperse. Those who refused were forcibly carried into trucks, while other demonstrators followed without resisting.

Those detained seemed likely to get jail sentences of up to two weeks for public order offences.

State television made a point of quoting city police saying no-one was hurt in the operation. An officer in command urged his men through a loudhailer not to use excessive force.

Milinkevich's Internet site said all underage protesters had been released by mid-morning. Officials have not yet said how many people were detained.

Some observers said the comparatively gentle treatment of demonstrators suggested Lukashenko may be trying to react more sensitively given Western opinion.

Others say Putin may have applied pressure to ensure a minimum of force was used. Though the Kremlin congratulated Lukashenko on his win, Putin would not, as current chairman of the Group of 8 rich nations, want to be associated with unsavoury police action in Belarus.

Lukashenko won the election with an official vote tally of 83 percent to 6 percent for Milinkevich. Despite his pariah status in the West, Lukashenko is popular among Belarussians for having ensured relative political and economic stability.