16 Sep 2005 19:42:23 GMT

Belarussian police break up opposition protest

Source: Reuters

MINSK, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Police in Belarus, an ex-Soviet state accused in the West of violating human rights, broke up a protest on Friday by demonstrators marking the sixth anniversary of the disappearance of two opposition figures.

About 70 demonstrators defied a ban to gather in the main square of the capital Minsk carrying portraits of opposition politician Viktor Gonchar and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky.

Police repeatedly pushed the protesters out of the square and thwarted their attempts to regroup. No arrests were made.

Western countries have demanded independent investigations into several unexplained disappearances during the 11-year tenure of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Gonchar and Krasovsky disappeared in 1999 during an opposition campaign to stage alternative presidential elections and an investigation into the case was dropped two years ago.

Other instances include the disappearance of former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko and Russian television cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky. Authorities deny any involvement in the cases.

Western countries accuse Lukashenko of cracking down on Belarus's small, divided opposition, crushing independent media and rigging the electoral process to prolong his stay in power.

Some Western analysts have suggested Belarus may be the next ex-Soviet state to be subject to upheaval akin to the protests which unseated governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Lukashenko has vowed to cut short any such movement. And with police routinely breaking up protests and courts sentencing demonstrators to brief prison terms, fewer and fewer of his opponents are willing to take to the streets.

Lukashenko is expected to run for office again in October 2006 after winning a referendum last year enabling him to change the constitution.#