Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow
Violent clashes erupted yesterday on the streets of Minsk, capital of the authoritarian state of Belarus, when riot police attacked protesters with teargas, stun grenades and batons, injuring several people.
Hundreds of demonstrators, who had been protesting against the allegedly fraudulent outcome of last weekend's presidential elections, marched on a police station where their fellow protesters had been taken.
Witnesses reported that police with riot shields blocked the path of the demonstrators who shouted 'fascists' and then dispersed; the remainder were beaten heavily with batons by police who fired teargas and stun grenades into the crowd.
Two protesters were seen motionless on the floor, covered in blood, and there were unconfirmed reports that one had died in the violence. Scores of demonstrators were seen being herded into police trucks, including one of the opposition leaders, Alexander Kozulin, according to the Interfax news agency. 'He was beaten and arrested', his spokesman, Nina Shidlovskaya, told The Observer. 'I don't know where he is, and I am running from the special forces myself.'
It was the bloody climax to a week-long stand-off between the opposition and the powerful despotic regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.
An afternoon of chaos was fomented by an Interfax report that the main leader of the opposition, the pro-Western academic Alexander Milinkevich, had been arrested. Yet his wife, Inna, told The Observer he was, in fact, at a police station in order to deal with the arrest of his spokesman, Pavel Mazhaika. 'He is, for now, free,' she said.
The violence will further ignite tensions within the country of 10 million that has been ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, dubbed 'Europe's last dictator' by the Bush administration. On Friday the US and European Union said that they would introduce 'targeted sanctions' against Lukashenko's regime.
Yet Russia, Belarus's ally and a cautious backer of Lukashenko said that a report damning the vote by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had inflamed tensions.
Lukashenko has claimed 83 per cent of the vote with a 92 per cent turnout. Milinkevich, who won 6 per cent by the same official tally, has said Lukashenko's presidency is illegitimate.
It was unclear yesterday whether the violence would consolidate the climate of fear in Belarus or inspire further protests. The Belarus security services, the KGB, had warned before last week's vote that opposition demonstrators would be arrested for 'terrorism' and could face the death penalty. Opposition activists and human rights workers are routinely jailed on charges ranging from 'slandering the president' to 'unsanitary behaviour'.