Belarus opposition parties call for street protests

MINSK The leader of ex-Soviet Belarus's opposition called yesterday for street protests to drive President Alexander Lukashenko out of office.

Alexander Milinkevich, who finished a distant second to Lukashenko in a March poll denounced in the West as rigged, told a rally that he no longer believed elections would be held to offer Belarus' 10 million people a political choice.

"The opposition no longer believes in elections in Belarus.

The authorities will no longer conduct elections," Milinkevich told the gathering on the outskirts of Minsk.

"We must hold street protests. We have to have more and more of them. Only in this way can we overturn dictatorship." Police routinely detain demonstrators at events held without official permission, but yesterday's rally obtained a permit on condition that protesters stay out of the city centre.

Milinkevich urged participants to gather later at Minsk's October square - site of big protests after the March election - to place candles in memory of opponents of Lukashenko who have disappeared without explanation.

Some 100 protesters later gathered at the square but were turned away by police, witnesses said.

Milinkevich also called for supporters to gather by a Minsk court next week when it hears an appeal into a 5 ?-year prison term on hooliganism charges imposed on Alexander Kozulin, a second politician who challenged Lukashenko in the March poll.

Yesterday's protest, the first in several months, was called in solidarity with two of the men who disappeared-opposition politician Viktor Gonchar and businessman Anatoly Krasovsky who vanished in September 1999.

Western countries allege Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has systematically hounded opponents, closed down independent media and rigged elections.