By KIM MURPHY
LOS ANGELES TIMES
MINSK, Belarus - A rally billed as a last-ditch attempt to challenge discredited presidential elections in Belarus erupted in violence Saturday as riot police plunged into the crowd with truncheons and arrested dozens of people, including opposition candidate Alexander Kozulin.
As protesters, some of them bloodied, ran screaming from the scene, police chased ringleaders down side streets of the capital Minsk, clubbing them to the ground once they were caught.
"Law enforcement took maximum security measures to prevent an escalation, and protected people who were simply trying to spend their leisure time nearby," Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said at a news conference later in the day.
He accused Kozulin, one of two opposition candidates who unsuccessfully challenged President Alexander Lukashenko in last Sunday's elections, of urging supporters to storm a jail where detained activists were being held and also calling "for the physical elimination of the head of state, and for a power grab."
But Kozulin's spokeswoman, Nina Shidlovskaya, said the protest was intended only as a peaceful show of support to the prisoners.
Kozulin, a former university rector, stepped ahead of the crowd to negotiate, "to try to explain why we were here, and that we didn't mean any harm," she said in a telephone interview. "But when he started walking toward them, the police began to beat their clubs against their shields, and they were advancing toward us like an iron-clad army."
The protesters turned down another street, but were suddenly set upon by police who broke the crowd into sections of several dozen each and began beating protesters with clubs, Shidlovskaya said.
Eight policemen were injured in the clashes, authorities said.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager who has been accused of manipulating elections to remain in power for the past 12 years, maintains a government-controlled economy and repressive security apparatus to run a country often seen as a relic of the Soviet era.
Relative prosperity and a wide social services network have assured Lukashenko's popularity, but international observers found deep flaws in the election that gave the president an 82.6 percent victory. They said harassment and arrests of opposition leaders and independent media rendered the balloting undemocratic.
On Friday, the U.S. and the European Union said they would impose targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions on Belarus.
In an interview with Kremlin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky aired on Russia's NTV Saturday night, Lukashenko asserted that Belarus compares favorably with Western Europe.
"Everyone lives together amicably here," he said, but the West is unhappy because he has frustrated plans to extend the reach of institutions such as the European Union and NATO into Belarus.