Belarus police gear up for protest rally

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK - Belarus riot police took up positions at entrances to Minsk's October Square on Saturday, ahead of a rally called to denounce the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, which the opposition says was rigged.

Police clad in the distinctive black of the special forces were turning away mainly young people whom they clearly viewed as potential demonstrators.

But the atmosphere was calm and the square -- scene of overnight anti-Lukashenko vigils earlier in the week -- looked like a deserted island in the middle of Independence Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare.

Despite police action that broke up the overnight protests early on Friday and defying a ban on such demonstrations, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has urged supporters to mass "no matter what" from 1000 GMT in October Square.

Milinkevich, defeated opposition candidate in the March 19 poll, has said that if authorities seal off the square -- which seems likely -- protesters will move to a different location which he has refused to disclose.

Just two hours before the scheduled start there was no indication what support the rally, which also marks the independence day of a short-lived Belarussian republic in 1918, would attract.

A modest turnout was possible following Friday's early morning swoop by riot police.

"I had sympathy for those young men who were there at the square, but it could not last long." Vladimir Butin, a retired engineer, said on Saturday. "After they were crushed, many people would perhaps prefer to be on the safe side."

The five days of protests are unusual in Belarus, a tightly-controlled ex-Soviet state where dissent is normally nipped in the bud by Lukashenko's state security service.

Numbers that turned out for previous demonstrations this week have varied from several thousand last Sunday night to the 200 or so who were rounded up by police early on Friday morning.

Demonstrators are demanding a re-run of the poll which handed Lukashenko five more years in power. The official tally gave him 83 percent of votes versus 6 percent for Milinkevich.

Events in Belarus have set Russia, which endorses Lukashenko's election victory, at odds with the United States and Western Europe.

The United States and EU issued separate statements denouncing the police action and announcing plans to impose restrictions including a travel ban on Belarus in the aftermath of the election.

"The United States condemns the actions by Belarussian security services on the morning of March 24, and we urge all members of the international community to join us in condemning any and all abuses," U.S. President George W. Bush President George W. Bush said.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which described the election as flawed -- as playing an "inflammatory role" in Belarus. He defended the police action as restrained.

On Friday night police prevented dozens of residents from approaching the square with the intention of laying flowers.

Stiff legislation against illegal assembly and unrelenting police action had kept opposition activity to a minimum in recent months. Most protests attract only dozens of activists.

But authorities have handled this week's protests with comparative tolerance and police may simply divert protesters away from the city center to avoid confrontation.

According to incomplete opposition figures, police detained more than 260 demonstrators in the square and drove them off in trucks to a pre-trial detention center. Opposition activists said 80 demonstrators had been jailed for up to 15 days.