Police club government opponents in Belarus

Momentum in doubt: Crowds have fallen short of those that toppled regimes in Ukraine and Georgia

By Yuras Karmanau

The Associated Press

In Minsk on Saturday, riot police beat protesters headed toward a jail holding fellow demonstrators. (Ivan Sekretarev/The Associated Press )

MINSK, Belarus - Black-clad riot police clubbed demonstrators as government opponents marched Saturday in defiance of a show of force by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that has drawn U.S. and European Union sanctions.

A week into protests set off by the disputed election that handed Lukashenko a third term, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told a crowd of thousands that momentum is growing to bring democracy to Belarus.

''We are starting work against dictatorship, and this work will sooner or later bear its fruit,'' he said.

But Milinkevich also urged a monthlong recess in protests, apparently hoping to calm tensions and gain time to build opposition forces, which have fallen far short of the huge outpourings that peacefully overturned governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

The day of confrontation and wildly swinging emotions left two big questions for the former Soviet republic of 10 million people, characterized in the West as Europe's last dictatorship: How much dissent are the authorities willing to allow and how much support does the opposition have?

Milinkevich spoke at an impromptu rally in a park after hundreds of police blocked protesters from gathering on the central square that had been the focus of anti-Lukashenko demonstrations until riot squads swept in before dawn Friday and arrested dozens of people.

Demonstrators held flowers, waved the red-and-white flag of the opposition and shouted ''Milinkevich!'' and ''We are not afraid!''

Police didn't interfere with the 7,000 people in the park, raising hopes that security forces' long history of violence against dissenters was softening.

But authorities showed their tolerance had limits after some of the rally's participants marched off toward

a jail holding some of those arrested during demonstrations against the March 19 presidential election that the protesters consider fraudulent.

More than 100 people were arrested throughout the day, said Ales Byalyatsky of the human rights group Vasnya.

The International Helsinki Federation said one demonstrator was severely injured, suffering a fractured skull. A Russian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was beaten and detained earlier in the central city, his father told The Associated Press.

The United States criticized the use of force.

''We call on Belarusian authorities to refrain from further use of force and arrests against those exercising their legitimate rights to assembly and expression,'' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. He also urged the release of those jailed.

Among those arrested at the march was Alexander Kozulin, who like Milinkevich was a candidate against Lukashenko in the election. His spokeswoman, Nina Shedlovskaya, said he was beaten by police.

Kozulin apparently initiated the march to the jail, angering Milinkevich, who said that ''Kozulin decided to spoil this holiday for the people.''