Belarus Riot Police, Protesters Clash


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- Riot police clashed with protesters in the Belarusian capital Saturday, forcing demonstrators back and hitting several with truncheons. Four explosions were heard, apparently percussion grenades set off by police.

The clash broke out after a line of riot police blocked the path of hundreds of protesters heading to a jail where demonstrators arrested in previous protests were being held. Police beat their shields with truncheons and advanced on the crowd.

The protesters began to disperse, yelling: "Fascists!" But police detained some 20 people and loaded them into large trucks.

At least two people were seen lying on the ground after the clash, apparently seriously hurt. An ambulance came to pick up the injured.

The main opposition candidate in the vote, Alexander Milinkevich, denied media reports that he himself was detained.

He told The Associated Press that his spokesman, Pavel Mazheika, was detained in a separate incident. Milinkevich went to a precinct house to attempt to secure his release.

"No, I have not been detained," he said. "I came to the (police precinct house) to help my press secretary, who was carrying equipment and was detained," he said.

However, Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader who called on protesters to head to the jail after the rally, was beaten and detained during the clash, his spokeswoman, Nina Shidlovskaya said.

The violence came after an opposition rally drew thousands of Belarusians peacefully in a park to denounce President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election returned him to power.

Rows of black-clad police blocked the central October Square where opposition leaders had called for a rally at noon, pushing crowds back in a bid to end a week of unprecedented protests in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic. Demonstrators shouted "Shame!" and "Long live Belarus!"

Tensions mounted swiftly as police in full riot gear arrived by the busload to shove protesters back. The crowd at a major intersection near the square - where Lenin Street meets Independence Avenue - quickly swelled from a few hundred to some 3,000.

After gathering on the other side of the sprawling square with a crowd of about the same size, Milinkevich led supporters to a nearby park and the group swelled to as many as 5,000 people.

"The authorities can only confront the striving of the people for change with persecution and violence," Milinkevich told the crowd. Demonstrators held flowers and waved the red-and-white historic flag of the opposition.

"The people have come out today, they have come out in the face of truncheons, in the face of arrests. We are working against dictatorship," Milinkevich said. "The more the authorities conduct repression, the closer they bring themselves to their end."

The tense scene came a day after police stormed a tent camp in the square, the focus of round-the-clock protests over the 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.

Milinkevich promised the demonstration Saturday to mark the anniversary of Belarus' first independence declaration in 1918 would be peaceful.

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

A row of police buses stood nearby across a street from the park where the rally ended up being held.

"I am tired of being afraid, and the fear is leaving me," said Yelena Sokolovskaya, 44, an accountant who stood at the rally in the park. She said the government's claims that the economy is thriving are "a lie - Milinkevich speaks the truth."

A three-man crew from Belarusian state television, which has aired repeated reports showing the protests in an extremely negative light, was leaving the park as protesters in the crowd pelted them with snowballs and shouted "Shame on Belarusian television!"

The election set off an unprecedented week of protests, beginning with an election-night demonstration that drew some 10,000 people to Oktyabrskaya Square - 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.

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.