Belarus Opposition Leader Still Determined


MINSK, Belarus -- The week of unprecedented protests that followed disputed elections was just a start, and the opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko need to step back and gather broader support, an opposition leader said Monday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Alexander Milinkevich likened the protests to a storming that made "cracks in the fortress" of the hard-line government.

But he acknowledged they were not big enough to force change and said the opposition would now seek to get its message to more people in the former Soviet republic of 10 million.

"We have made holes and cracks in the fortress. But if we keep on knocking against it with our heads, especially with few forces, we may lose. That is why we are taking a step back and beginning a siege of this fortress. The siege will be an information attack," he said.

His remarks came two days after a week of protests following the March 19 election culminated Saturday in a clash with riot police who beat demonstrators with truncheons.

The opposition was left daunted but determined to press ahead.

"There will be a second storming, but we won't wait five years for it," Milinkevich said.

Belarusians are confronting an array of unanswered questions: It is unclear how much support the opposition really has, how much dissent authorities will tolerate or what effect a stream of denunciations from the West will have.

The European Union called on its partners to join in protesting against Saturday's violence and the detention of Alexander Kozulin, another opposition leader who instigated a march to a jail where detained opposition supporters are being held. Riot police advanced on the marchers, beating some with truncheons and detaining dozens.

The EU statement was the latest in a series from the United States and Europe denouncing the vote that gave Lukashenko a third term.

Milinkevich called on the EU to be firmer in its calls for the release of Kozulin and hundreds of other people arrested during the protests.

He spoke as courts were trying some of the detainees, with many expected to be sentenced to jail terms of up to two weeks. A rights group said more than 100 protesters were detained Saturday in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry claimed Sunday that police had shown "restraint and patience," and officers resorted to force only after being attacked.

E-mails and cell phone text messages reportedly encouraged supporters to gather Sunday evening at the central October Square.

Lukashenko despises the West and criticism from there fuels his contentions that the West is out to overthrow him. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the statements "are on the border of an anti-Belarusian hysteria."