Opposition pledges another rally in Belarus

US and EU plan sanctions for the president

By Yuras Karmanau, Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus -- The opposition promised to go ahead with a rally today, even though a police raid on its tent camp showed the regime is not relaxing its hard line against dissent. The United States and European Union said they will impose sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko.

Helmeted riot police broke up the camp on Minsk's main square before dawn yesterday, arresting hundreds of demonstrators who had been part of unprecedented round-the-clock protests in this tightly controlled former Soviet state.

Protesters were put in trucks and taken to jail. Some who escaped or were freed said they were beaten by police.

Opposition supporters holding flowers returned to the square at twilight yesterday, but police seized some of them, pushed the rest of the small crowd down the street, and prevented pedestrians going home from work from walking through the square.

The European Union and the United States called yesterday for an immediate end to the crackdown on opposition activists, who are protesting Lukashenko's overwhelming victory in last weekend's presidential election as fraudulent.

EU leaders said the bloc would take ''restrictive measures" against Lukashenko, including a likely travel ban to its member nations and a possible freeze of Belarusian assets in Europe.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Washington would act in unison with the EU on such measures.

''We urge all members of the international community to demand that authorities in Belarus respect the rights of their own citizens to express themselves peacefully and to condemn any and all abuses," McClellan said.

''The United States calls on authorities in Belarus to release without delay the hundreds of citizens who have been detained not only in the past 24 hours, but in recent days and weeks simply for expressing their political views," he added.

The EU and US measures seemed unlikely to influence Lukashenko, who despises the West and is pushing for a closer union of Belarus and Russia.

In Moscow, Russia's foreign minister took issue with media description of police storming the tent camp. ''I would not call the scenes I saw on TV today the use of force," Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Lukashenko's supporters, who credit him with providing economic and political stability, said they were happy the tent camp was gone.

The tough response, after days of allowing demonstrations, indicated police don't intend to allow the gathering today. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said he plans to unveil a strategy at the weekend rally to drive the call for new elections without Lukashenko's participation.

Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of a third term in last Sunday's elections, which European observers said were severely flawed but which Russian officials have defended.

An election night protest attracted some 10,000 people -- an enormous turnout in a country where police usually suppress unauthorized gatherings.