Belarus police block attempts at new demonstrations

MINSK (AP) - Police in Belarus began blocking a new opposition demonstration Saturday, the day after the arrests of several hundred protestors against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Opposition supporters -- buoyed by Western governments' decision Thursday to slap sanctions on Lukashenko's government -- hoped to gather in large numbers on central Minsk's October Square.

But police appeared determined Saturday to prevent another unauthorised rally on the square and pushed hundreds of demonstrators back up nearby streets. Security men said through megaphones that the square was closed because of work to remove an open-air ice rink there, with bulldozers scraping away ice and snow.

The small, but growing crowd was split up at various points around the square.

On Independence Avenue, the crowd chanted "Freedom!" and "Long live Belarus!" Police reinforcements arrived to prevent the crowd pushing forward. In a nearby side street, an AFP reporter saw 10 trucks designed for carrying prisoners, a row of buses and ambulances.

October Square was the site of a major police raid Friday to end a sit-in demonstration demanding the annulment of Lukashenko's landslide re-election March 19.

More than 300 people were arrested, according to human rights monitors from the local Viasna organisation.

Top opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said Saturday's rally, taking place on the unofficial holiday of Freedom Day, would be peaceful and that if October Square was blocked, "we will go somewhere else."

It was unclear how much strength the opposition retained following a massive crackdown in the wake of Lukashenko's re-election to a third five-year term in what Washington and the European Union said were rigged polls.

Before Friday's raid, more than 250 other activists were detained in separate incidents, according to Viasna, which monitors the capital's courts and prisons.

The police have released no official information.

Lukashenko, who has ruled for 12 years, threatened on the eve of his re-election to "break the neck" of any unrest and his KGB security service suggested that demonstrators could face execution as terrorists.

Traditionally, large crowds have come to Minsk on Freedom Day to celebrate a short-lived declaration of independence from Russia in 1918. The holiday is not recognised by the Lukashenko government, which has the closest ties to Moscow of all post-Soviet countries.

"We want to celebrate a holiday, not a political demonstration," Milinkevich said earlier this week. "We will avoid violence. We won't use force."

There was evidence that the authorities were acting to prevent students from taking part in demonstrations.

Irina, a science student at Belarus State University, told AFP: "There have been more checks this week on whether we attend lectures. If you're not there you have to explain."

"The system is that if they arrest you on the square, they confiscate your student card and send it to the university authorities. Then you can be expelled," said Irina, 18, asking that her family name not be used.

There was no mention of the planned rally anywhere on television, which is entirely under state control, or the dominant state-controlled newspapers.

The opposition has received unusually strong support from the West this week.

At a Brussels summit Friday, EU leaders agreed to widen a list of senior Belarussian officials subject to a visa ban and said they were also considering financial sanctions.

Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said the measures would take effect around April 10 and may involve more than a dozen people. "It's a penalty for (Lukashenko's) sins. This is a fight of good against evil," he said.

The summit branded Belarus "a sad exception" to democracy in Europe.

The United States followed suit with a pledge to impose "targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions".

Belarussian officials slammed the West's reaction as showing "disrespect to Belarussian people's choice" and threatened to answer in kind.

China, Cuba and Russia are the most prominent countries to have given their support to Lukashenko and approval of the way Sunday's election was conducted.

According to official results, 83 percent voted for Lukashenko on March 19 and 6.1 percent for Milinkekvich.