Protests continue in Belarus

Riot police and demonstrators clash in the capital, leading to a number of arrests.


MINSK, BELARUS -- Riot police clashed with protesters in the Belarusian capital yesterday, 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." Police detained about 20 people.

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 said his spokesperson, Pavel Mazheika, was detained in a separate incident. Milinkevich went to a precinct house trying 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 spokesperson, 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 about 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.

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 yesterday to mark the anniversary of Belarus's 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 was 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."