Police block off central square in Minsk


Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - Riot police blocked off the main square in the Belarusian capital on Saturday, pushing back at a growing crowd in a massive show of force meant to quash persistent protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Tension mounted swiftly around October Square in central Minsk as Lukashenko's foes heeded an opposition call to gather there for a protest Saturday. Police buses brought reinforcements in full riot gear, and four paddy wagons jail pulled up nearby.

Police pushed several hundred protesters back to the corners of a major intersection, where Lenin Street meets Independence Avenue. The crowd quickly swelled to some 3,000, including passers-by, but was matched by a mounting police presence.

Demonstrators shouted "Shame!" and "Long Live Belarus!"

The tense scene came a day after police stormed a tent camp in the square, the focus of round-the-clock protests over the disputed March 19 election. Lukashenko won a new five year-term by a landslide in a vote denounced as a farce by the opposition and criticized in the West as undemocratic.

Hundreds were arrested in the pre-dawn raid Friday. The tough response indicated the government had no intention of allowing the Saturday gathering during which opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich planned to unveil a strategy to drive forward the call for a new election.

Speaking early Saturday outside the jail where many of the protesters were taken from the tent camp, Milinkevich vowed to press ahead with a major demonstration marking the anniversary of Belarus' first independence declaration in 1918.

"We're not planning any violence, any taking of the Bastille. We want a peaceful demonstration," he said, standing with his wife and about 100 relatives of detained activists. "I hope the authorities understand this."

Milinkevich said if the authorities do not let demonstrators gather, "we will look for another place." The jail is a few miles from the central square.

"I have survived war and a Nazi concentration camp, but what is happening here is even more outrageous," said Leonid, 70, a retiree standing near the square who declined to give his last name out of fear of retribution.

"We must overcome fear," he said.

"Today we will see a comedy, a farce," said Viktor, an unemployed 24-year-old who said many of his friends had been arrested when police stormed the tent camp and that one woman's whereabouts were unknown. Others were sentenced to 10-15 days in jail, he said.

An election-night protest attracted some 10,000 people - an enormous turnout in a country where police usually suppress unauthorized gatherings swiftly and brutally. Protesters raised the stakes at another rally Monday, setting up tents where hundreds stayed through the night and remained until the raid at 3 a.m. Friday.

Police arrested hundreds of people in connection with the protests, but their failure to break up the camp over several days raised opposition hopes of establishing a foothold. Those hopes ended when riot police stormed in, wrestling about 50 protesters into trucks and taking away hundreds of others who didn't resist.

Tension mounted again Friday evening as scores of opposition supporters holding flowers were pushed away by police who cleared the large square, pushing people off and detaining at least three, including a man who appeared to have been punched in the chin and a woman who struggled but was subdued by a dozen officers.

The European Union and the United States said Friday that they will impose sanctions on Lukashenko, who they say has turned Belarus into Europe's last dictatorship since his first election in 1994, and both called for an immediate end to the crackdown on the opposition.

EU leaders said the bloc would take "restrictive measures" against Lukashenko, including a likely travel ban and a possible freeze of Belarusian assets in Europe. The White House said the U.S. would act in unison with the EU.

Those measures seemed unlikely to influence Lukashenko, who despises the West and has allied his country with Russia. In a statement late Friday, the Foreign Ministry said the sanctions had "no prospects" and that Belarus reserves the right to take retaliatory measures.