'Last dictator' arrests rival in Belarus poll protests

By Colin Freeman

Authorities in Belarus arrested an opposition leader after violent clashes yesterday between police and demonstrators protesting at the disputed election that gave the authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, a third term in office.

Alexander Kozulin, one of a handful of candidates who dared oppose Mr Lukashenko in last Sunday's election, was seized as he attempted to march with others on a prison where hundreds of people arrested over the past week are being held. Later, his spokesman said he had been beaten by the police, who were still holding him last night.

Elsewhere in Minsk, the capital, phalanxes of black-clad riot police clubbed opponents of the government who marched in defiance of an order to stay at home.

"It was very cruel. They kicked people, beat them with clubs," said a 55-year-old bus driver who saw the clash. Another witness said simply: "It was terrifying."

Earlier, the leading opposition figure, Alexander Milinkevich, told a crowd of thousands that momentum was growing to bring democracy to Belarus. "The people have come out today. They have come out in the face of truncheons, in the face of arrests," he declared in the snowy park to which protesters were diverted, to prevent them from gathering in the city's central square. "The more the authorities conduct repression, the closer they bring themselves to their end."

International monitors have strongly criticised the former Soviet republic's poll, in which Mr Lukashenko - dubbed Europe's last dictator - won 82.6 per cent of the vote and secured a further seven years in office.

Police did not interfere with the 7,000 people who gathered to hear speeches - the biggest crowd since protests on election night - but moved swiftly to break up the march on the prison. Witnesses reported seeing marchers bleeding profusely from their injuries and there were claims that police had used percussion grenades.

In a sign of tension between rival opposition leaders, Mr Milinkevich, a mild-mannered academic who came second in the poll after receiving an official voting tally of six per cent, criticised Mr Kozulin for leading the move towards the prison and bringing the police into action. "Kozulin decided to spoil this holiday for the people," he said.

The mood among Mr Milinkevich's supporters was determined. "I am tired of being afraid, and the fear is leaving me," said Yelena Sokolovskaya, 44, an accountant, at the park rally.

But Mr Milinkevich admitted that the demonstrators were not in sufficient numbers to force a change in government and has not renewed a call for daily protests to continue.