New protest promised in Belarus, despite police move against activists’ tent camp
MINSK, Belarus – The opposition promised to go ahead with a rally Saturday, even though a police raid on its tent camp showed the regime is not relaxing its hard line against dissent. The U.S. and EU said they will impose sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko.Helmeted riot police broke up the camp on Minsk’s main square before dawn Friday, arresting hundreds of demonstrators who had been part of unprecedented round-the-clock protests in this tightly controlled former Soviet state. Protesters were loaded on to trucks and taken to jail; some who escaped or were freed said they were beaten by police.Opposition supporters holding flowers returned to the square at twilight Friday, but police seized some of them, pushed the rest of the small crowd down the street and prevented pedestrians on their way home from work from walking through the square.The European Union and the United States called Friday for an immediate end to the crackdown on opposition activists, who are protesting Lukashenko’s overwhelming victory in last weekend’s presidential election as fraudulent.EU leaders said the bloc would take “restrictive measures” against Lukashenko, including a likely travel ban to its member nations and a possible freeze of Belarusian assets in Europe. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Washington would act in unison with the EU on such measures.But those measures seemed unlikely to influence Lukashenko, who despises the West and is pushing for a closer union of Belarus and Russia.In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister took issue with media description of police storming the tent camp.”I would not call the scenes I saw on TV today the use of force,” Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.Lukashenko’s supporters, who credit him with providing economic and political stability, were happy to see the tent camp gone.”They had no business being there; it was a stupid rally,” said Natalia, 57, a pensioner who declined to give her last name for fear of attracting attention. “We live OK and if something’s not broken, don’t fix it.”The tough response, after days of allowing demonstrations, indicated police have no intention of allowing the Saturday gathering. Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich has said he plans to unveil a strategy at the weekend rally to drive forward the call for new elections without Lukashenko’s participation.Lukashenko was declared the landslide winner of a third term in Sunday elections that European observers said were severely flawed but which Russian officials have defended.An election night protest attracted some 10,000 people – an enormous turnout in a country where police usually act swiftly and brutally to suppress unauthorized gatherings. Another rally Monday raised the stakes when activists set up tents and stayed through the night, continuing there until the raid at 3 a.m. Friday.Police arrested hundreds of people trying to deliver food to the encampment or for other protest-related offenses. But with the eyes of the world focused on Minsk, the unwillingness of the authorities to break up the camp over several days raised the opposition’s hopes of establishing a foothold.Those hopes ended when police stormed in, wrestling about 50 demonstrators into trucks and taking away hundreds of others who did not resist.Opposition youth movement member Nikolai Ilyin, 21, said he and other demonstrators – many of them with only socks on their feet because they had been sleeping – were taken to a Minsk jail.”Many people were made to stand in stockinged feet in the snow for two hours. We were made to stand against a wall with our hands up, and those who would turn their heads or say something were punched in their kidneys,” Ilyin said. He said he fainted and was hospitalized, then fled the hospital.High school student Alexander Ushko said police “beat those who were the most active and those who were resisting,” being careful to avoid leaving bruises. “They punched me in the legs and the back of the head,” he said after his father came to the jail to secure his release.A former Polish ambassador to Belarus, Mariusz Maszkiewicz, was among those arrested and said he and others in the same police truck were severely beaten, Polish Embassy spokeswoman Monika Sadkowska said.Tension mounted on Oktyabrskaya Square again Friday evening, as black-clad police pushed away scores of opposition supporters.Groups of police then gradually cleared the large square, pushing people away in all directions and detaining at least three, including a man who appeared to have been punched in the chin and a woman who struggled but was subdued by a dozen officers. A crowd on the main street leading off the square shouted “Shame!”
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