By JIM HEINTZ
The Associated Press
MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Police barged into the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital early Friday and rounded up hundreds of demonstrators who had spent a fourth night protesting President Alexander Lukashenko's victory in a disputed election.
The arrests came after a half dozen large police trucks and around 100 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to October Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m.
The police stood around for a few minutes and then plowed into the camp
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 republic.
Journalists were kept about 60 feet away behind police lines, but a local reporter who gave her name only as Olga said she heard a man who was apparently heading the operation yell "I told you not to beat them."
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 15-minute operation, all the protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains of their encampment - about 20 backpacker-type tents, blankets, refuse and several of the red-and-white flags they had been waving to signify freedom. City workers with dump trucks and bulldozers quickly cleared the debris.
One protester, opposition youth movement member Nikolai Ilyin, 21, said the demonstrators - many of them in socks, because they had been sleeping - were taken to a Minsk jail.
"Many people were made to stand in stockinged feet in the snow for two hours. 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," said Ilyin. He said he fainted and was hospitalized, then fled the hospital.
Released from jail when his father came to get him, Alexander Ushko said police in the trucks "beat those who were the most active and those who were resisting, but beat them in such as way as to avoid leaving traces."
"They punched me in the legs and the back of the head," said Ushko, a teenager in his last year in high school.
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 in Washington.
On Thursday, Belarus lashed out at 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," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said.
European Union leaders condemned the crackdown, and expanded sanctions against Belarus. They said the sanctions would probably include a travel ban against Lukashenko and called Belarus a "sad exception ... on a continent of open and democratic societies."
The protests began with a rally of more than 10,000 people on Sunday, the day of the election. About 5,000 attended a second protest Monday, when a core group decided to make the protests around-the-clock.
Police had been detaining opposition supporters and keeping would-be protesters away from the square - the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tallied more than 200 arrests in the first three days of the protest - but a top police official said earlier in the week there was no intention to disperse the demonstration.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the pre-dawn raid Friday. An annual television awards ceremony is to be held Friday evening at the Palace of the Republic bordering the square, and the scruffy camp would have been an embarrassment to the government.
The liquidation of the tent camp left in doubt the prospects for 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 on Friday.
"The people on the square were courageous," Milinkevich said on his way to the jail. "They got up off their knees and together with them all of Belarus stood up."
However, the number of protesters never rose to a level likely to force change as in postelection protests in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where opposition leaders eventually came to power.
Lukashenko supporters, who credit him with providing economic and political stability, were happy to see the tent camp gone.
"They had no business being there; it was a stupid rally," said Natalia, 57, a pensioner who declined to give her last name for fear of attracting attention. "We live OK and if it something's not broken, don't fix it."
Milinkevich had said would announce "the long-term plans of the opposition" at what was meant 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 told the AP early Friday that he would continue to call for the rally.
Milinkevich said one of those detained Friday was a former Polish ambassador to Belarus, Mariusz Maszkiewicz. At the jail, Polish Consul Krzysztof Swiderek said Polish citizens were being held but that authorities would not let him in or give him any information.